October 17, 2010
The Unions, the Trial Lawyers, and Mr. ChekhovBy Frank Burke
How did Anton Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard (1904) ever get past the censors of Imperial Russia? The central plotline is an extremely obvious representation of the then-current situation in Russia and its inevitable consequences.
In the play, Madame Ranevskaya, a Russian aristocrat, returns to her estate. The house, which she loves, is situated in a beautiful cherry orchard. Unfortunately, it has been heavily mortgaged, and the debt is about to come due. A friendly neighbor, Lopakhin, the son of a serf, advises her to divide some of the property and sell off lots for houses so as to retain title to the main house and part of the orchard. But Madame will not listen. Enmeshed in petty intrigues, enamored of the past, and looking toward a future that cannot be, she is both unwilling and unable to act.
Two of the largest supporters of the Democratic Party, the public employees' unions and the trial lawyers, are behaving much like Madame. Even in the face of an ongoing recession, groups like the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), the NEA (National Education Association), multiple local teachers' unions, and unions representing other state and municipal government employees have refused to make the meaningful concessions that have become common throughout the private sector.
In many of our major cities, high school graduation rates are below fifty percent. Statistics show that public school attendees in the United States lag behind students in other countries, especially in key areas like math and science. Although the problems affecting K-12 students in urban areas are complex, the importance of quality of teaching remains one of the primary determinants of success. The success of voucher programs and many charter schools supports this conclusion.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, it is nonetheless extremely difficult to discipline or remove a teacher for incompetence. Nor is this the only problem. In areas where budget cutbacks, loss of population, or a combination of the two has resulted in teacher layoffs, the unions stubbornly cling to seniority rules even in cases where younger teachers have evidenced superior performance.
As the public has become aware of the extent of wage and benefit packages in the education sector and the corresponding poor performance, attitudes have undergone a massive shift. Budget and tax increases formerly sold as necessary expenditures for the sake of our children have been revealed as massive takeaways for teachers, administrators, and others within the educational establishment.
Public service unions have been equally outspoken in their refusal to accept changing economic reality. The purple-shirted membership of the SEIU have become the de facto shock troops of the Obama administration, staging marches, demonstrations, and counter-protests, and, on occasion, resorting to violence.
The relationship between trade unions and the administration was all too visibly demonstrated with the takeover of Chrysler and GM and the redistribution of ownership to the UAW. Likewise the protection granted to union pensions, even as the retirement programs for salaried employees were totally decimated. Most recently, the granted waiver to the teachers' union to opt out of Obamacare provides further evidence, if any was needed, of the cozy relationship between labor and the Obama administration.
In the recent past, a number of trade unions have chosen to make concessions in order to save jobs. In some cases, the concessions were meaningful and affected salaries, benefits, and work rules. On the public side, though, cooperation has been much less forthcoming. Frequently, wage increases negotiated years before have been insisted upon despite the severe recession. Other examples of insular thinking include insistence on extending benefits to live-in companions and, in one instance at least, a demand for free Viagra.
Like the public-sector unions, the American Association for Justice (also known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America) has resolutely opposed efforts to effect any major changes in tort law. In so doing, they have contributed mightily to spiraling health care costs, both in terms of raising the rates physicians must pay for malpractice insurance and, even more importantly, causing medical practitioners to practice a strategy of defensive medicine -- the administration of multiple expensive tests so as to cover themselves in the event of later legal action.
Nor is medicine the only venue the trial lawyers have affected. Extravagant jury awards have resulted in manufacturers and service providers having to spend heavily on liability insurance -- something that has frequently placed them at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis foreign competition.
Certainly, no reasonable person would argue against just compensation for injuries caused through malpractice or liability. Unfortunately, all too often, the trial process has become an example of the triumph of emotion over reason. This was demonstrated when John Edwards (former Democratic presidential candidate, etc., etc.), in an emotional jury appeal, claimed to be "channeling" the spirit of a young girl, allegedly the victim of medical malpractice.
The fear of such lawsuits, and the expense associated with them, has resulted in a justified reluctance to go to trial -- even when the doctor's or manufacturer's case has merit. It is often cheaper and always easier to settle out of court, thereby raising insurance rates, which are passed on to patients and consumers.
Realizing the damage done and the present economic situation, one would think that the trial lawyers and the public-sector employees would in fact be willing to negotiate and come to some form of reasonable compromise. Instead, they have bought into the Democratic Party with huge campaign contributions of money, manpower, and muscle. To date, this has paid handsome dividends -- money from the stimulus was used to safeguard union jobs and pensions, there were special allocations to "save teacher jobs," and the most radical health care program in the history of the nation disavowed all tort reform. Like Mme. Ranevskaya, they have refused to acknowledge that the house has been mortgaged and the debt is coming due.
As Governor Christie of New Jersey and others have shown, the public now understands the need to control union demands, and the trial lawyers who refuse to consider tort reform may soon have a more severe version pressed on them than they could have had if they had cooperated. That Democratic structure of which they are so much a part is poised to crumble, and it will take them with it.
At the end of Chekhov's play, Lopakhin, the serf's son, announces that he has bought the cherry orchard. The last sounds we hear are axes felling the trees outside -- the steady beat a grim and funereal warning. Thirteen years after the first performance, the heedless aristocracy was overthrown and the czar deposed. The clock may well be ticking for another aristocracy along with its unions, trial lawyers, and its coterie of "czars."