Ex Machina is the 50-issue series by Brian K. Vaughn and Tony Harris about Mitchell “The Great Machine” Hundred, a superhero who is elected to be the Mayor of the City of New York in the aftermath of September 11. In this post, we’re looking at two things: the stories’ portrayal of New York City’s municipal government, and the possible implications of superheroes on police union contracts.
Ex Machina is set in an alternate version of early- to mid-2000s New York City. Mitchell Hundred is a civil engineer working on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1999 when he is injured by an exploding. . . device of some sort. He recovers, scarred, but possessed of the ability to “hear,” speak to, and command all manner of machinery and electronic equipment, including computers, radios, handcuffs, you name it. He initially does some freelance superhero work as “The Great Machine” and decides to run for mayor in the summer of 2001. He is actually able to prevent the plane from hitting the second tower on 9/11, and possibly due to that accomplishment, wins the election, taking office in January 2002 in place of Michael Bloomberg.
While doing his freelance gig, he discovers that the NYPD and FDNY aren’t necessarily thrilled with him. True, he saved that one guy on the subway, but in so doing he shut down most of the subway system for half a day. And yes, he did disable the car in which bank robbers were fleeing the scene, but that caused a ten-car pileup in which numerous people–including an NYPD officer–were injured. He also finds out that the Commissioner has reasons beyond the merely practical for disliking him. . .
II. NYC Politics
I’m about half a dozen issues into the series, and the portrayal of city politics thus far has been accurate. The New York Election Law does require an independent candidate to submit a petition supported by 7,500 signatures to get on the ballot for the mayoral race. The Public Advocate–currently Bill de Blasio, who just won the Democratic nomination for the 2013 mayoral race–is the first in line to fill the Mayor’s office should the Mayor resign or otherwise fail to complete his full term. The NYPD is unionized. Indeed, it is represented by at least a handful of unions, mostly divided up by rank rather than geographical area (e.g., the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the Sergeant’s Benevolent Association, the Captain’s Endowment Association, etc.). The Brooklyn Museum of Art, as part of the Cultural Institutions Group does receive much of its funding from the City. In short, I haven’t yet come across a detail about the NYC government that the story has gotten wrong. Which is impressive, considering that municipal governments in general–and in New York City in particular–tend to be rather arcane and obscure affairs when compared to the federal or even state governments.
III. NYPD Unions and Superheroes
But the story does flag one issue which we haven’t discussed before, one which is applicable to a wide variety of comics contexts. Simply put: what effect, if any, would the activity of superheroes have upon police unions and union contracts? And what remedies, if any, would the unions have in the event of such an effect?
In Ex Machina, the issue is mentioned by the police commissioner, who is annoyed that Hundred used his powers to thwart an assassination attempt on his own life despite the fact that his protective police detail had the situation well in hand. The would-be assassin wasn’t anybody special, really. No supervillain, no alien, nothing. Just a nut with a gun. The kind of threat that the NYPD is specifically designed to counter. The commissioner suggests that if Hundred moonlights as a freelance crime-fighting vigilante, that could interfere with the NYPD’s union rights. While Mitchell is a private citizen, that’s one thing. But as Mayor of the City of New York, that’s something else entirely.
How might superhero activity interfere with union contracts? Essentially, the NYPD is the primary law-enforcement agency in New York. If someone needs to be arrested, or someone needs to be protected, in the vast majority of cases, that’s the NYPD’s job. And not just de facto either: the NYPD, through its unions, have collective bargaining agreements with the City about the nature and extent of the City’s obligations to its police officers. This includes, obviously, not hiring non-union scabs to take the place of unionized police officers. Every time a superhero makes an arrest, or saves the day, that’s potentially a ton of overtime that the NYPD unions aren’t getting.
In its most extreme form, the argument is kind of silly. When the Chitauri open up their portal and send a ridiculous number of ships and troops pouring into Midtown, either the Avengers are going to handle that situation or its the End of the World. But if you think about it for a minute, many if not most superhero stories, especially in decades past, have to do with far more mundane villains. Even many supervillains are ultimately just bad guys with big guns. And this is to say nothing of various superheroes’ efforts to curb in run-of-the-mill street crime.
This is also where the fact that Hundred is now the Mayor comes into play. If the NYPD unions were to sue a private citizen superhero for edging in on its union-protected turf, the word “crucified” does not even begin to describe what would happen to said unions in the press. Particularly if it appeared that the villains being apprehended really were outside the ability of the NYPD to handle. But if the NYPD were to sue the Mayor for moonlighting as a superhero, the argument that this is an attempt by the Mayor to save budget by reducing the need for unionized police officers looks a lot more plausible. Especially, if as in this case, the threats in question are of the sort that the NYPD handles just fine on its own, thank you very much.
But expanding the argument from Ex Machina to superheroes in general, a city in which a number of superheroes were operating might well decide that it’s time to rethink its collective-bargaining agreements with its police unions. That might well provoke a suit against the city, arguing that by relying upon superheroes to do what the police have been contracted to do, the city has breached its contractual obligations. It might also involve a suit against the superhero for tortious interference, arguing that the superhero has interfered with the union’s contractual rights and/or obligations.
And before you think that such a suit would always be unpopular, remember that (1) voters generally like police departments, and (2) a lot of comics stories involve significant questions of the overall popularity of superheroes. Suggestions of anti-democratic tendencies, delusions of grandeur, and an overall attitude of “Just who asked you anyway?” could really come back into play here.
Regardless, a union facing a significant bite to its contracted jurisdiction might feel that it has no choice. If the choice is between extinction (or at least radical reduction) on one hand and filing an unpopular lawsuit on the other, unions don’t have a lot of easy choices. Remember the strike that shut down Hostess last year.
Ex Machina is to be credited for its accurate portrayal of the procedures of New York City electoral politics. But spotting the issue of police union contracts being implicated by superhero activities is truly inspired.