Sunday Reflection: Hard to get good goons these days

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So the public employee unions have been on the defensive across the nation, and they've been losing battles in state capitols from Wisconsin, to Ohio, to Tennessee.

Although there have been some violent incidents and death threats, overall, despite the talk from many right-leaning pundits about "union goons," the actual danger posed by the union members appears to have been very small by labor-historical standards. Apparently, you just can't get good goons nowadays.

And that makes sense. In the old days of the labor movement, the unionized industries were, you know, actual industries, involving miners, steelworkers and the like. And those are trades that foster exactly the qualities you need in good goons.

Why? Because they're very dangerous activities that put a premium on teamwork. (Even in totalitarian countries, people know that it's dangerous to get the miners upset.)

Those kinds of work foster a mind-set that's not entirely different from what you find in successful combat troops: team spirit, the sense that you have to rely on your peers to cover your back, and you'd better do the same for them. (Also, in those lines of work it's easy for those suspected of shaky loyalty to have "accidents.")

When people who are used to dealing with cave-ins, or ladles of molten metal, hit the streets, they're putting those traits to work in an environment that's probably less dangerous than the one they work in every day. That makes them pretty formidable.

In fact, it made them so formidable that they were able to put together unions solid enough to send the industries they depended on overseas, where labor was more tractable, because the bosses weren't willing to face the headache of trying to get rid of the unions, and couldn't afford to pay the wages the unions, with their toughness, had managed to extract.

But miners and steelworkers are one thing. When the public employees of, say, Wisconsin hit the streets, it looked more like a bunch of disgruntled DMV clerks and graduate teaching assistants, because, well, that's what it was.

Though they displayed more creativity in signage than you might expect from steelworkers, overall, they brought pretty much the same work habits to their protests that they bring to their jobs. (Sleeping in the capitol? Pretty much what they do at the office.)

America's DMV clerks aren't known for toughness and dedication on the job, and it would be asking a lot to expect them to display such characteristics for the first time when they're off the job.

When the street protests didn't work out, the public employee unions decided to make a "nonpartisan" judicial election a referendum over Wisconsin's anti-union legislation.

The Service Employees International Union and other labor groups went all in on the election, but still lost. A pointless recount failed even to narrow the margin significantly.

Bottom line: All the might of the public employee unions wasn't even able to swing a nonpartisan, off-year, judicial election. Can you say "paper tiger"?

Of course, one of the partners at my old law firm once said that Mao's use of the term "paper tiger" to describe something that needn't be feared merely served to demonstrate that the chairman had never had to respond to a massive discovery request in litigation.

And, in fact, the public employee unions have been better in the legal system than on the streets, getting Wisconsin's Democrat-friendly judicial system to rule in favor of the unions despite rather shaky grounds for doing so.

But mastery of rules and discretion in employing them is exactly what you'd expect from an army of DMV clerks, as opposed to steelworkers, isn't it? And in the end, friendly judges may turn out to be more effective than tough goons.

What remains to be seen is if Republicans can counter public employees' own favored tactics, or if the unions will once again price themselves out of existence.

With federal and state deficits skyrocketing, public employees may be better off if Republicans succeed in reining in spending than if the unions succeed in producing a fiscal collapse.

Examiner Sunday Reflection contributor Glenn Harlan Reynolds is founder and editor of Instapundit.com and a law professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

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Glenn Harlan Reynolds

The Washington Examiner