Firing-up Liberty Genes

I was an external candidate when I was hired as an editorial writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press in the summer of 1983.  This was very good news for me, but it was bad news for two insiders at the paper, both reporters, who had wanted the job but didn’t get it.

Unsurprisingly, they were mightily displeased, especially since the union contract covering reporters and editorial writers had a provision that said internal candidates were to be favored over external candidates unless no internal candidate was deemed sufficiently qualified for the job.  Or words to that effect, as I never read the contract.

Did I personally think they were talented journalists?  Yes.  Did I think I was a better qualified opinion writer?  Yes, again.  And evidently, so did editors.

As to be expected, the union, called the Newspaper Guild, grieved my appointment.  In practical terms, this meant they wanted me un-hired.  Problem was, I was now a member of that very same union.  And not only was I a member, but I was dues-paying one.  Meaning, I was financially underwriting efforts to get me excised.

This made me mad as hell.  But somehow, management prevailed and I wound up spending four good years on the page before taking a job in Washington at the Department of Education of the United States of America, towards the end of the Reagan administration, where my two greatest satisfactions were playing touch football with Bill Bennett, and never being mortally clipped or clotheslined by anyone or anything I paid dues to.

I’ve spoken a fair amount over the years about playing football with Secretary Bennett, and then-Drug Czar Bennett, with the latter games featuring well-armed law enforcement agents ringing the field keeping him standing tall (and I always liked to think the rest of us too).  But I don’t recall ever writing about my ridiculous start at the Pioneer Press and how I was welcomed by some of my solidarity-challenged colleagues.  But let the record show, I was received very well by almost everyone else in unofficial and friendlier settings and occasions.

So, why write about it now?  The short answer is the Supreme Court’s recent and excellent Janus ruling that, among other things, workers don’t have to pay dues to a union which turns around and sends large portions of those same dollars to political candidates they don’t support.

How to best comprehend what had been allowed in 22 states, including Minnesota, but is no longer?  I’ve found how a few moments of quiet reflection, punctuated by a few pages of P.J. O’Rourke, bring into clearer relief the offensive absurdity of permitting private entities to command union members, or anyone else, to fund political ideas and activities they don’t like, possibly passionately so.

Let’s say you’re not just a member of the American Federation of Teachers, you’re also a conservative, of whom there are many more in unions, including teacher unions than many people think.  Now consider how the AFT’s recent convention in Pittsburgh featured orations by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Hillary Clinton.  With all due respect to them and steamed speechifying, is it the least bit cricket that you’ve been required to shell out real money to the AFT for promulgating political speech and ideas counter to your most basic beliefs?  How could it have been fair?  Or constitutional?

One of the reasons for not having written about my first few weeks at the Pioneer Press is that I’m not anti-union and haven’t wanted to leave any impression I might be.  This is the case given whence I came, and whence my forebears came, and how our backgrounds have contributed to my uncomfortableness with the ways unions are sometimes criticized.  More importantly, I’m not anti-union because one of the essential things democracies are obliged to guarantee is the right of citizens to form private-sector trade unions if that is their free choice.

But I must admit, more than any other cluster of issues, memories of my start at the Pioneer Press 35 years ago, amplified by the Janus decision a few weeks ago, are doing an unusually vivid job of firing up my liberty gene.