Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pardon my tirade about some labor unions

More and more often, my experience with labor unions involves corruption, strong arming, and protecting the lazy. I used to be a big union advocate, because I understood unions stood up for all of the little people and gave them the power they otherwise did not have in terms of collective bargaining.

When unions first started, they had a noble purpose, but I wonder whether they still do. I offer three different observations:

Transit. I work with a number of different transit agencies, and reading through their documentation, contracts and performance data, I think, quite often, that the operators and dispatchers and maintenance personnel would be better off without a union. I’ve had transit managers tell me that they tried to give 15% merit pay raises to their long-term drivers with the best safety records and the highest number of passenger compliments, but the union leadership argued against it, instead eking out a 3% increase for all of the drivers, including the terrible ones. I see ridiculous provisions in San Francisco Muni’s contract that allow drivers to skip work without calling in. I see agencies sideline, with full pay and benefits, bus drivers who are drunk or beat up passengers. These people should be fired.

Schools. I have acquaintances who work in education and a spouse who works as a teacher at San Francisco Unified School District. Reading the directives of an educated and fairly reasonable sounding superintendent and then the teachers’ union’s irate and unreasonable response makes my blood boil. Why is the union willing to sacrifice some of its best and brightest young and innovative teachers to protect a few substitute teachers? Why can’t one of the worst performing schools in the SFUSD, with a particularly inept and crazy teacher who cannot competently educate the students assigned to her class year after year, be fired so that young, bright and innovative teachers can transform the classrooms and be rewarded for their work? The union protects the rights of the terrible teachers without even thinking about the students in their classrooms. The union’s focus is far too narrow.

Grocery. Almost every day I walk into Bristol Farms’ store in Westfield San Francisco Centre, an urban mall anchored by Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom in downtown San Francisco. Bristol Farms is a high-end supermarket on the ground floor of the mall that has been picketed by labor union representatives since the store opened. One day, shortly after the picket started in front of Bristol Farms, I asked the 60-something looking man with a huge gut and a yellow t-shirt why he was picketing. His answer: “It’s not a union store.” My response: “So why don’t you picket Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s? I don’t think they’re union stores.” His answer: “Umm, they just told us to come down here. I don’t really know anything.”

And so nearly every day since then, I walk past the mix of disheveled people who I would certainly have laid off if I had a business. They lean against the outside of the Bristol Farms store and talk on their cell phones or to one another about somebody’s “son who beat up his cousin getting out of jail” or “getting real fucked up this weekend.” I walk inside, buy some sushi or some soup, and I make a purchase from one of the efficient, friendly people who work at Bristol Farms. It’s not to say I don’t value the supermarkets and other businesses that offer their employees benefits and health care and other things, but it is to say to this union, if you’re going to send out the laziest, sloppiest people who don’t know why they’re standing outside the supermarket to tell people not to go in, then I’m not going to listen to your whining and irrational behavior. If you want to make an impact, you might need to hire some smart non-union young people who can clearly communicate what you seek to accomplish.

It may be my upbringing. My perspectives have changed over time, but I confess that growing up in Georgia – perhaps the least union-supportive state in the US – may have tinged my opinions somewhat. My school teachers were not unionized. The hometown airline, Delta, was not a union shop. And my friend in high school who worked at a local supermarket was pissed off that he had to pay union dues that got him nothing in return.

I am not a union-basher. Really. I believe that employer-sponsored health care, vacation time, cost-of-living increases and other benefits are rights that working people should have. And I’m grateful to the labor unions for making sure that Americans are guaranteed these benefits by most employers. But I also believe in rewarding people who do a good job, firing people – without question or backlash – who are slow or lazy or inept, and that an organization should rationally and clearly communicate its goals and responsibilities if it wants people to listen to its message. I’m seeing fewer and fewer examples of labor unions that are succeeding in these three areas, and that disappoints me because I want to be more supportive. Unfortunately, some of the only unions that impress me anymore are health care workers’, manufacturers’, construction and farm workers’ unions.

The good news is that one of the neighbors up the street is a union official and often is threatened enough by another union or another organization that her union positions bodyguards on the street to protect her. I suppose after posting this, I’d better cozy up to her.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

amen. san francisco teachers union is a bunch of communists who don't have any common sense except to let the old tired teachers sit on their duff and take years off at a time and get their full salary. I wish theyd all be laid off.

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