When City Councilman John Crawford insisted Monday that political considerations didn’t influence his efforts to eliminate collective bargaining for city employees, he wasn’t kidding: Although City Council’s Republican majority achieved most of its policy objectives, the process was so clumsy and heavy-handed that county GOP Chairman Steve Shine is wisely trying to minimize any political backlash.
And partisan ideology is hardly confined to Republicans, despite recent party-line votes that eliminated bargaining for non-public safety workers and the requirement to join a union for firefighters and police officers. It’s worth remembering that collective bargaining didn’t exist for city workers before council approved it in 1974.
That vote was 8-1 – with all eight Democrats voting for their principles after as little debate and compromise as the current 6-3 Republican majority displayed when supporting theirs.
Eight years later, when city officials asked the Chicago-based Fantus Co. to assess how Fort Wayne could boost its struggling economy, the consultants determined that labor unrest and the perception of union dominance had “damaged the city’s reputation with respect to locating new industry.”
But before you conclude that voters reacted to the party-line imposition of collective bargaining and the weak economy of the early 1980s by replacing council’s Democratic majority with Republicans – or expect a similar seismic shift next year – the city’s premier political expert cautions:
Not so fast.
“Annexation played a role (in the GOP’s council ascendency),” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW. When the city consumed Republican-heavy areas such as Pine Valley, Aboite Township and others, it not only added to the ranks of GOP voters but resulted in new council districts. The 1st District, for example, was once reliably Democratic but today is represented by Republican Tom Smith.
Although Downs expects unions and their supporters to be politically active next year, Democrats will unseat Republicans only if they can attract good candidates. “If there’s a chance they can achieve a 5-4 majority and are ready to work hard, there are some folks who could be (competitive) candidates,” he said. Some Republicans' longevity on council could also hurt them, Downs said.
Despite complaints that council Republicans rammed their reforms through with little study or debate, Downs said any changes to collective bargaining would have been controversial because of the issue’s nature and the two parties’ differing philosophies.
But if the Republicans had offered an alternative at the same time they eliminated bargaining – alternatives outlined by Shine in a letter to council members last week – the rhetoric might have been less heated, Downs said.
Perhaps. But the truth is that many union members, accurately or not, believe their economic security depends upon their ability to bargain collectively. It may seem odd to see Shine suggest the creation of an independent grievance board and other mechanisms to replace the process council just eliminated, but he understands that people will not vote for a party they hold responsible for their own hardships, real or imagined.
Freed of the requirement to pay union dues, hundreds of city workers now have more money in their pockets. But they’ll vote Republican only if they can be convinced that will continue past the next election.
The undeniable fact is that, when Fort Wayne was far more heavily unionized than it is today, its residents earned well above the national average. That is no longer the case. But it is equally true that unions are indeed widely viewed as an impediment to economic development. And as Crawford has pointed out, union membership in the United States has fallen from about 35 percent in 1955 to 11 percent today – with just 6.7 percent of the private sector organized compared to 35 percent in the public sector.
One need not belong to a union to be a “working” person or to be treated fairly in the workplace. Nor can unions overcome dramatically shifting economic and market forces. But, where Fort Wayne city government is concerned, unions were not widely perceived as a problem before council made them an issue – first on economic grounds, then as a matter of philosophy.
An election is the perfect way to settle the debate, at least for a while. You can bet the pro-union side will be ready. Crawford, R-at large, can be applauded for not acting politically, but Shine and the rest of his party don’t have that luxury.