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Blue Civil War in New York's Jails

Walter Russell Mead

An effort by the New York Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association to grant anonymity to guards found responsible for wrongdoing highlights the ongoing clash between unionized public sector workers and the people they are supposed to serve—an increasingly important dynamic taking place in city and state governments across the country that’s part of what we’ve dubbed the “blue civil war.” From the New York Times:

Last year, an administrative law judge ruled that [a corrections officer], should be fired for repeatedly kicking a 16-year-old in 2011 who was prone on the floor. The judge noted that Officer Victor had been suspended for kicking another young inmate in 2004. The officer’s lawyers requested that his name and records be redacted.

But the judge, Faye Lewis, declined, writing, “OATH’s publication of its reports and recommendations without redaction furthers the public interest in transparency and open government.”

Last summer, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association appealed the tribunal’s hearing by going into State Supreme Court and arguing that not only the officer but also all other officers “similarly situated” should be granted confidentiality.

Public sector unions are an important Democratic constituency and form the foundation of the urban political machines that control so many large American cities. But the most serious grievances that many Democratic voters feel are about the inadequacy of the services these employees provide: dysfunctional schools, unaccountable law enforcement, abusive prison guards, or inefficient welfare bureaucracies.

Unions, without hesitation, seem to side with the incompetent or mean-spirited employee over members of the public, whether they are children being taught by bad teachers, or inmates being beaten up by brutal guards, or African Americans being shot by trigger-happy cops.

There are two sides to every story, and public employees (who are often competent and well-intentioned) aren’t automatically the villains. Even so, it’s clear that public sector unions tip the balance too far in favor of the employee—not only in individual disputes, but in contract and pension negotiations that effectively mortgage the futures of entire cities and states.

Neither party is able to deal with this problem forthrightly. Republicans are more likely to defer to the police and prison guard unions, Democrats to the teachers and bureaucrats—and nobody wants to pick a fight with the firefighters.

This is understandable—to some extent, political coalitions depend on currying favor with interest groups—but it’s important to realize that the victims are disproportionately poor and minority communities whose prospects are profoundly affected by whether cities are well-managed and well-run.

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