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Public Servants Who Would Willfully Abuse the Public Trust

March 06, 1994|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, teaches in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at USC and formerly served as city librarian of San Francisco.

The refusal of the Librarians' Guild to consider Sunday a normal work day at the Central Library threatens to make a mockery of the newly renovated $200-million-plus facility. Meanwhile, the Police Protective League threatens to distribute a videotape to travel and convention officials across the nation that depicts Los Angeles as an unsafe city--if the police union doesn't get its contract. This behavior, by the librarians and the police, strikes yet another blow at the cause of true unionism in Southern California. In each case, union leaders are pitting their unions against working people.

Ever since the Central Library reopened in October, it has been packed with visitors on Sundays, most of them Angelenos of ordinary income. Let's face it: The work week fills Monday through Friday to the brim. With the Northridge earthquake having lengthened nearly all commutes in an already intense commute environment, the work week is longer than ever.

For most, Saturday is for shopping and the dozens of errands that must be run each week to keep a household functioning. That leaves Sunday as the one day working Angelenos can enjoy a moment of respite, an opportunity for worship, for family gatherings, for recreation--and for that special refreshment of mind that a great public library offers.

And now, the Librarians' Guild tells us that it will not consider this day a day of ordinary service. They want to be paid double-time for working Sunday, if they agree to work at all. They reject the option of volunteers, as suggested by Mayor Richard Riordan.

Disingenuously, the librarians give the people classic Orwellian doublespeak. They say they cannot give us the level of service on Sunday they can during the week, so we should come to the library during the week--despite the fact that this is impossible for the vast majority of working people. Who are they kidding? Their response recalls the American major in Vietnam who told a television correspondent that his unit had to destroy a village in order to save it.

For its part, the Police Protective League offers equal scandal with its threat to strike at the core of the L.A. economy. Sworn to preserve and to protect the citizens of Los Angeles, it would endanger the jobs of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens to get its way at the negotiating table.

In both cases, highly regarded public servants are scandalizing the public that looks to them for guidance and protection. Librarians--public librarians especially--stand for the idea that all Americans, regardless of income or social status, should have access to books and information, as a matter of economic and intellectual survival. Similarly, the theory of policing in a democracy embodies the notion that the protection of life and property is a service extended equally to all citizens.

So why do librarians tell people they cannot use the library on Sunday? Why do the police threaten to undercut that part of the local economy that generates most entry-level jobs?

The answer is irresponsible unionism. I emphasize the word irresponsible , for true unionism has brought innumerable benefits to working America. Just ask any undocumented worker in the region or, conversely, any woebegone yuppie working seven days a week, 10 hours a day.

Simply put, the Librarians' Guild has no right to take the library away from the working people on Sunday, and the Police Protective League has no right to disrupt the economic well-being of the citizens whose taxes pay the salaries of its members and whose welfare they are sworn to protect. Librarianship and police service are positions of deep trust between citizen and public servant. No union has a right to violate that trust.

The public sector performed magnificently after the Northridge quake. Perhaps that is why Riordan is not taking on the librarians and the police. Up until the earthquake, Riordan frequently talked about privatizing certain municipal services. The German-based Bertelsmann Foundation has recently selected Phoenix as one of the best-run cities in the world, precisely because it has successfully privatized many of its municipal services.

If the librarians at the Central Library do not wish to work on Sundays, one can easily imagine a private company of professional librarians being formed that would bid to run the Central Library seven days a week at a competitive cost.

The police question is more complex. A police force should not be privatized, lest it become the exclusive preserve of privilege. The police hold a special position in our society. Sworn officers, their lives on the line every working day, are akin, in many respects, to clergy in their status and responsibilities, although most cops would cringe, even guffaw, to hear the comparison. (Still, the uniform of the Los Angeles Police Department is almost clerical in color and cut, and a rabbi serves as president of the Police Commission.) That's why the abuse of laity by clergy or the abuse of citizens by the police is such a heinous offense.

Riordan must address each of these unions. To the Librarians' Guild and the Police Protective League, he must say: "Serve the people. Do not offer them scandal. Do not betray their trust. Bargain fairly. Negotiate reasonably. Don't threaten the people."

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