Point Austin: Union Goons

On unions, the 'Statesman' is bull-goose loony

Point Austin
The Chronicle editorial board – an informal, movable feast comprising the news staff, editors, and publisher – is currently knee-deep in our endorsement meetings with candidates for the March 4 primary elections (in this county, essentially exclusively Democratic). We're interviewing candidates, reviewing backgrounds, asking questions, and trying to put ourselves in the shoes of voters (like ourselves) walking up to a voting machine and making hard choices. It's an engaging and informative process, time-consuming but instructive, and an opportunity to address at length with both incumbent and would-be public officials a broad range of issues, ranging from children's health care to land use, public schools to capital punishment, mental-health resources to economic development.

What do we look for? I can't speak for everybody, but certainly near the top of our lists are knowledge, competence, and flexible intelligence. These candidates are applying for difficult jobs, for which they'll need to comprehend a wealth of information quickly in order to address – and balance – a multitude of legitimate but often conflicting public interests. It is hardly sufficient to be obsessed with one or two issues filling the recent headlines. And since we're generally considering various shades of Democrat, declaring fealty to one or another progressive agenda is in itself seldom persuasive. Certainly we try to determine whether a candidate is genuinely committed to democratic values, open government, real equity, and honest justice, but beyond those presumptive standards, we also try to weigh fairly whether he or she is best capable of doing the job well.

I'm thinking about these matters not only because we're in the middle of them, but because those good folks at the Austin American-Statesman editorial board, in their latest hysterical rant against the all-powerful city public-safety unions, have helpfully suggested a whole new procedure. "The power play by Austin's public safety unions to enrich themselves through city council elections," declared the editors ominously, "is distasteful on several levels" ("Austin Unions Line Up Bargaining Chips," Jan. 23). That latest screed was in response to the recent joint endorsements of City Council candidates issued by the police, firefighter, and EMS union political action committees – which the Statesman wants us to believe were directly exchanged for promises of cash. "As a reward for the endorsements," the editors – how can I put this? – lied, "past city councils have made Austin police the highest paid in Texas and among the highest paid in the United States."

Should we surmise that these high-minded geniuses presume that other people exchange endorsements for cash or other favors, because that must be ho w they handle their own affairs?

Listen and Decide

At the Chronicle, we're still weeks away from municipal election endorsements, so the unions are way ahead of us. Hoping to learn more about this latest trend in fundraising, I spoke to union leaders about their endorsement process. As you might guess, their firsthand version directly contradicts the Statesman slanders.

"I've been doing this for 12 years," said Austin Police Association Vice President Wuthipong Tantaksinanukij (known universally as "Tank"), "and that has never come up, ever. I give the same opening speech every year – we're not looking for a yes-person or somebody who votes with us all the time. We're looking for someone who will have an open-door policy on the issues that concern us, someone who is capable of making informed decisions, especially about public safety. And not only public safety – we're interested in parks and streets, in economic development, in everything that makes Austin a great city."

Stephen Truesdell, president of the Aus­tin Firefighters Association, reiterated that pay issues "weren't discussed at all" with the candidates and that most of the discussion (to which general membership was invited) concerned "public safety and working conditions," especially matters like expanding fire protection for Downtown high-rises. "We want someone who's going to listen and who will make informed decisions," Truesdell said. It's certainly no secret that all three organizations are concerned about staffing levels for a growing city – a concern shared by literally everyone at City Hall and all interested observers. But to the Statesman, there's inherently something sinister about union members trying to figure out how we're going to protect a fast-expanding city – because it's going to cost real money.

Steve Stewart represents the EMS union, smallest of the three, but also with responsibility for both city and county. He says they talked to candidates about how to improve city-county emergency management, as well as overall emergency response times, and they ended up endorsing those candidates who they believe have the most specific proposals to help do those things. "We're not in the same position as cops and firefighters," said Stewart, a bit wryly. "But we've never really asked for money. We've asked for the tools to do our jobs."

All three men shrugged off the States­man's cheap shots, but they still stung. "It's just more of the same," said Trues­dell. "They seem to believe we shouldn't be able to exercise our rights."

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Alas, the union reps were no help to me in learning how to turn the Chronicle endorsement process into ready cash. No doubt, like all of us, they have their own best interests in mind; but in making their endorsements, it sounds like they pretty much proceed like most citizens, trying to determine who are the best candidates for the job at hand. (The three reps were each frankly surprised that they were able to issue a joint endorsement on all candidates; they entered the process presuming they would differ on some.)

It's no news to Chronicle readers that governing the city is a complicated, demand-heavy, resource-short, interest-balancing proposition and that we're entering another economically perilous period in a city already stretched for funding – there are going to be hard arguments about every last dime. Public safety needs indeed must be balanced against every other myriad public need. But reflexively blasting the unions as money-grubbing blackmailers is, to put it prissily, "distasteful on several levels."

Of course, unlike the Statesman editors, who make their weighty decisions from the objective realms of Mount Cox Olympus, the rest of us just do the best we can.

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public safety unions, Austin American-Statesman, City Council, endorsements, Austin Police Association, Austin Firefighters Association

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