Robert D. Rinker, Council 400 – Vice President, Eastern Region
On September 3, 2020, Dave Walsh and I went into the belly of the beast to meet with managing editor of Journal Inquirer, Jim Konrad, and the, now columnist and former managing editor of the JI, Chris Powell. Dave Walsh is Professor Emeritus from Southern Connecticut State University and is President of Council 400’s Retiree Chapter 409, State University Professors and Administrators. Chris Powell started, as reported by the JI, in 1967 and became an editor, and then managing editor from 1974 to 2018 when he retired, but he remains a contributing columnist. The meeting was held at the JI’s office on Progressive Drive in Manchester. The irony of the name of the street was not lost on me or Dave.
Chris Powell has made a career of excoriating public employees and their unions. He has figuratively blamed them for everything from the Lindberg baby kidnapping to the decline of Western Civilization. While this may be an exaggeration, he recently wrote for the elimination of the State’s University and Community College system. His reason was that our K-12 education has not prepared our students for college work. He begrudgingly allowed one of the top 25 public universities in this country to remain open, the University of Connecticut, but he would close the UConn Health Center, Connecticut’s only public hospital and its only public School of Medicine.
Prior to our meeting, Powell insisted that we list no more than 15 factual errors in his columns. Dave Walsh who has meticulously cataloged all his factual errors sent over just 15 as a prelude to the meeting. So as the meeting was to begin, we asked “where is Powell?” The managing editor stated that Powell was not coming to the meeting, but had responded to the factual errors with the predictable “it’s my opinion…”
This leads to a ridiculous discussion on how facts are not opinions and opinions are not facts. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. There was a point in our civilization when we thought the earth was flat, and the sun revolved around the earth. These were opinions that were thoughts to be true at the time, but certainly not facts.
So the great Powell was too chicken to have a socially distanced discussion or a Zoom meeting about his factual inaccuracies in his columns. The fact that we challenged him on it led him to start a recent column by saying, “State government employee union members lately have been complaining that this column picked on them too much.” We never said we were picked upon, but that there should be appropriated journalistic standards applied to Powell and his columns.
This led us to a discussion with the managing editor about the regular columnists and there are four of them, who columns almost always begin with “If it weren’t for state public employees and their unions (you fill in the blank for some what they perceive to some injustice in society or in their own minds)”. We asked the managing editor that the newspaper provide a proper balance to these flat-earth writers with a new column written from a different perspective, let’s say a labor or a public employee prospective. The answer was a quick “no,” but we could write letters to the editor. So here is the difference between a letter and a column. Powell writes about 3 columns a week and they are between 600 and 700 words about the length of this column. A letter to JI or the Hartford Courant cannot be more than 250 words and you can only submit one every 21 days, seems fair, right? While news stories and letters are fact-checked to ensure accuracy, these columnists have the liberty in small town newspapers to make up their own facts to support their opinion.
So the next time you read a Chris Powell column imagine the Wizard of Oz. Powell is the little man behind the curtain who thinks he is the Great Oz, but his lies and tricks will only get him so far.
CHRIS POWELL’S RESPONSE
Biggest cost of government employee unions isn’t money but democracy
State government employee union members lately have been complaining that this column picks on them too much.
But the frequent mention of those unions in this space is only proportionate to their huge expense and political influence. Personnel costs are about half the cost of state government when state financial grants to municipalities are counted, since most of those grants pay for municipal government personnel. Municipal government budgets are typically 75 percent personnel costs. Since most state and municipal government expense in Connecticut is personnel, personnel issues can’t be written about often enough in pursuit of accountability in government.
Most people who get involved with politics and government do so for selfish reasons. Of course government employee unions are not unique in this.
But other special interests don’t have the influence the state and municipal employee unions have because of their tens of thousands of members.
Every legislative district has at least hundreds of government employee union members, and some have thousands. As is their right, government employees make themselves heard, even as most people don’t, and elected officials respond mainly to those they hear from.
Few elected officials articulate and pursue the public interest. Indeed, few can even imagine it, and why should they when the public itself doesn’t? As the journalist James Reston wrote, the first rule of politics is the indifference of the majority. So the great majority pays for its political indifference through taxes, inefficient and ineffective government, and corruption.
As the public forfeits its influence, special interests take it, and elected officials, too scared to try to mobilize the public interest, become special-interest tools when they seek re-election.
So to criticize the excessive influence of government employee unions is not to criticize them as much as it is to criticize the elected officials who yield to them so easily and sometimes so grotesquely, as state government did a few months ago by going ahead with $350 million in raises to unionized state employees even as private-sector unemployment was rising sharply and the state’s economy was crashing.
The government employee unions will never acknowledge that what they construe as criticism of them is mainly criticism of elected officials. For the unions prefer to pose as the representatives of people oppressed by their employer, the government. The unions don’t want to be seen as what they have become in Connecticut, the masters of the government. They even presume to pose as the tribunes of the working class generally, as the president of East Windsor’s police union, Sgt. Jeffrey Reimer, did in a letter to the Journal Inquirer the other day.
“It’s because of unions that we have an American middle class,” Reimer wrote, as if there is no difference between public-sector and private-sector unions — as if public-sector unions don’t score their gains through political influence and exemption from market forces, while private-sector unions are subject to market forces and often face employers that have more political influence than they do.
Reimer even seemed to deny that police departments are military organizations, in which unionization is ordinarily forbidden, even though police are armed, use force in the name of the government, and carry military ranks. Collective bargaining ordinarily is not allowed in the military because it would be self-destructive for agencies established to defend the government to be simultaneously organized against it.
But Reimer inadvertently identified the biggest problem with collective bargaining for government employees. That is, he wrote, a government employee union “levels the playing field.”
Exactly. Collective bargaining for government employees brings the whole government and public interest down to equality with a special interest. Having piled binding arbitration of union contracts on top of collective bargaining for state and municipal employees, Connecticut has gone crazy in this respect.
So in the determination of their compensation and working conditions, government employees in Connecticut have power equal to that of the whole public, as represented by elected officials. That’s why the financial cost of collective bargaining for government employees in Connecticut is secondary. The biggest cost is democracy.