Sunday, May 24, 2009

How Union Bullies Fund their Critics

The L.A. Times' blog recently reported that the Los Angeles police officers' union tried to bully the San Diego Union-Tribune into firing editorial writers who argue that "lawmakers should cut back on salaries and benefits for public employees in order to help close gaping budget deficits." Gail Heriot calls the incident "chilling," and with good reason. I see a bright side to it, however.

Platinum Equity, a private firm, relies on a $30-million investment from the union's pension fund, along with large sums from the pension funds of other groups of California government employees, to help it buy companies. Platinum recently acquired the San Diego Union-Tribune. The L.A. police officers' union thus regards itself as a part owner of the paper—one that has purchased the right fire unwanted employees.

Exactly how much clout the union actually has over the paper remains to be seen. The San Diego Union-Tribune has publicly rebuffed the union's demands. As Heriot observes, however, "threats like these can cause a newspaper to soft-pedal its views even when the threats aren't carried out."

So what is the bright side? Many newspapers face financial difficulties, and would welcome capital infusions. This imbroglio will suggest to alert publications a ready way to attract investments from government-employees' unions: repeatedly and loudly demand that lawmakers reduce those employees' salaries and benefits. In effect, unions have signaled their willingness to subsidize their critics. State action would never have that effect; there is no profit to be had in suffering censorship. Score another point for the relative efficacy of market mechanisms—even when used by ignorant bullies—in encouraging freedom of expression.


Ran said...

Are you suggesting that the union intentionally placed itself in a position of partial ownership in the paper in order that it could attempt to stifle its critics?

And even if that's true, if we assume that unions act somewhat rationally, they'll only do the same at other papers if it turns out to work. It's hard to see that as a bright side.

Gil said...

I'm unclear on what this does for freedom of expression.

Why would unions invest in newspapers that "repeatedly and loudly demand that lawmakers reduce those employees' salaries and benefits." unless they could inhibit freedom of expression?

And, if papers exaggerate their criticisms of unions in order to attract investments, that's not the sort of expression we want to encourage, is it?

Well, maybe we do, but most people would prefer to read the best theories of the editors. Not propaganda designed to attact investors.

Mike Linksvayer said...

Fun conjecture, but as Ran implies in his first paragraph, I don't see any evidence that criticism led to the investment.

Tom W. Bell said...

Ran: Yes, I am. Is not my scenario brighter than one that sees only censorship?

Gil: As I said to Ran, I assume the worse--i.e., that the union invested in order to control. It does not follow that a newspaper would exaggerate, given that there are disincentives to lying. But a newspaper might well have new incentives to tell a fuller, and more critical, story about the effect of union lobbying on the public weal.

Mike: Granted, we lack proof that the criticism triggered the investment. If criticism does not have that effect on unions, however, this story is not nearly so alarming as it might otherwise seem, representing as it does a happenstance event. I meant to address the scarier scenario: That unions might be investing in their critics with the aim of silencing them. And I meant to observe that the policy would backfire.

Harry Eagar said...

Yeah, nobody ever heard of a private business pulling its advertisements from a newspaper, or organizing a boycott of a newspaper because it didn't like the coverage, or demanding that a reporter be fired.

Your bias is showing.

Of course, if you've ever called a corporation a bully on your blog, I'll pre-apologize, but I doubt I'll have to make good on it, will I?

Tom W. Bell said...

Eagar: Demanding that a critical reporter get canned hardly equates to denying a newspaper your patronage.

But, at any rate, I do hold government employee unions to a different, and higher, standard than I do run-of-the-mill private actors. Those unions rely on my tax dollars, and demand more and more of the same, so I rather frown on them trying to use my money to shut up critics who observe that . . . unions rely on my tax dollars, and demand more and more of the same. With the power to tax comes the burden of fair treatment.

Harry Eagar said...

Nonsense. I am a newspaper reporter, and private businesses have tried to have me fired, by several methods including withholding business.

It's a free country and they can do that, but, like I say, your bias is showing.

Ran said...

> Those unions rely on my tax dollars, and demand more and more of the same, […]

In what sense? Surely the employees' salaries depend on your tax dollars, and the unions depend on the employees' salaries, but that's some serious indirection you're eliding. Are there any other ways you hold public employees to a higher standard? Do you not want them using "your tax dollars" (read: their hard-earned salaries) for alcohol and cigarettes, either?

While I don't completely agree with Harry Eagar, I think he's right that your bias is showing. Sorry.

Annie said...

If you agree with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the union bosses' efforts to overregulate the American workplace, and their agenda of trade protectionism, tax increases and a government takeover of American health care is bad for businesses, bad for the American worker, and bad for the country, please sign our petition at

Aaron said...

I agree Bell because, rationally speaking, there's no other reason to invest in a newspaper house in this age. They'll all be bankrupt soon. Furthermore, as much as I dislike GOP-machine'd writers, government employees have no other incentive to improve performance (i.e. cut costs and increase productivity) - than from the increased transparency and subsequent public scrutiny.

Tom W. Bell said...

I got behind in the posts, and so will sum up the dangling debate about the standard of behavior I expect from government workers with this observation: I don't give a hoot if they want to expend their salaries on drinking or smoking or whatever affects *only their own lives.* It is when they spend it lobbying to get more of my money that I object. On that count, admittedly, I make the same demands of everybody, so perhaps it is not a special standard for government actors.