They got a union just for SERGEANTS? Really?

When I saw this headline at the Chicago Sun-Times site — “Ex-head of Chicago police sergeants union sentenced to 12 years in prison” — I thought what any ol’ Southern boy would think:

They got so many unions up there, they got a special one just for sergeants?

Apparently so.

Which means that those other parts of the country are… really different… from down here. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

As I’ve said before, I don’t hold with public employee unions. Public employees work for the people, not some separate private entity. That means they serve themselves as well as their friends and neighbors. Given that special relationship, there’s something really twisted about employer and employed being on opposite sides of a bargaining table. We should be able to rely on their being on the same side.

Fortunately, that’s one thing (one of the few) that I don’t have to worry about in South Carolina. We ain’t got none o’ that.

Unfortunately, we do get some of the negative effects of public employee unions here, with none of the dubious benefits. For instance… you know all that money that flows into our state from people trying to elect legislators who will undermine public education? They are to a great extent motivated by their animus toward “teacher unions.” Well, we don’t have any of those here, which is why it’s bitterly ironic that we should be a battleground for that issue (thanks in large part to Mark Sanford — his being governor persuaded those interests that South Carolina was fertile ground for their movement). The SCEA is a professional association, not a collective bargaining unit.

Today in the WSJ, there was yet another screed against teacher unions — which of course has no application to South Carolina. Sadly, too few in our state understand that, based on how many times I hear public education critics in our state moan about how the “teacher unions” stand in the way of improving education here. (I actually heard it from the lips of a Rotary speaker recently.)

Anyway, these are the things I’m thinking about as voters in Wisconsin decide whether to recall their governor over a battle about public employee unions. A fight in which we do not have a dog.

44 thoughts on “They got a union just for SERGEANTS? Really?

  1. bud

    Abuse of employees is wrong no matter who the employer is. Unions exist to address legitimate employee grievances. Not sure the distinction is relevant.

  2. DaveC

    As a recently retired state employee (retiring last summer after 29 years’ service), I wish more people would realize that groups like SCEA and SCSEA are NOT unions. They are, as you said, professional associations and nothing even remotely akin to the public employee unions in Minnesota and other states!

    But to peruse reader comments in The State and other papers, the not-so-subtle difference appears completely lost on the ‘general public’ largely, I suspect, to the joy of most members of the general assembly and the governor’s mansion.

    That all said, I am dismayed with the treatment of state workers in all the feldercarp which has arisen over their retirement system. The alleged ‘deficit’ in the system is based largely on false assumption that everyone in the system would retire at once. The ‘deficit’ is being used as a wedge to attempt to privatize the system and let certain unnamed parties have access to the $26 BILLION in its investments for their own purposes having nothing to do with state workers’ retirement.

    I was not a member of any of the ‘professional associations’ as an active employee. But this retirement fiasco has prompted me to take a very active role with both the SCSEA and the State Retirees Association. They, along with SCEA, are not unions but they are the ONLY voices for those who are or used to be state workers. And I’d urge anyone in either category to consider doing the same.

  3. Brad

    The union model is based upon seeing the labor-management relationship as an adversarial one. It presumes a pre-existing breakdown of trust. As a publisher who I once worked for used to say, companies that get unionized usually asked for it.

    You don’t want employees working for the public who have an adversarial attitude toward their employer, the people. Not a healthy thing.

    In a private-sector situation, you have separate private entities with sometimes (although not in a healthy workplace) divergent interests.

    Public employees’ interests should never diverge from the public interest. If they do, you’ve got the wrong employees.

  4. `Kathryn Braun

    Seriously, Brad–do you really think that someone’s personal interest in being paid well is aligned with the government’s interest in keeping costs low, say? Employer-employee is not a zero-sum game, but there is clearly a divergence of interests!

  5. Brad

    The employee is also the employer, in the case of the public workplace.

    Of course, I would argue that even in the private sector, a workplace that needs a union for the workers to be treated fairly is not a health place to work.

    Even in the private sector, it is in the interests of both labor and management to keep the company healthy, profitable and growing. Sometimes bosses forget that. Sometimes employees do. I don’t like any kind of relationship that ENCOURAGES such forgetting — and the adversarial bargaining model does so.

  6. Doug Ross

    I had not had any real experience with public unions until I spend a long time working as a contractor for the Postal Service.

    I went out to assist some unionized computer programmers in Minnesota. I was okay with them walking out every X hours for their mandatory break… but then one of them confided to me that he purposely put the wrong code into his program in order to get paid overtime to fix it.

    Unions make business less efficient. Unions suppress the ability for individuals to excel as it makes the rest of the workers “look bad”.

  7. Steve Gordy

    Brad, I’m surprised that you haven’t yet caught on to something basic about the American system, namely that it’s “make the best deal you can.” Executives, entertainers,board members get employment contracts. If you can show me a way the average worker can get an enforceable employment contract WITHOUT a union, I’ll be happy to sign in to your way of thinking. Until then, no.

  8. Brad

    They do? Not until after I got canned from the paper (after which I’ve had a couple of contractual relationships) did I ever work anyplace where executives got contracts, to my knowledge (and I was a V.P. at my last job). Maybe that’s why I’m not “catching on.”

    Maybe those top people get contracts when they work at a place where their subordinates are unionized. Maybe they demand it so as not to be left out…

  9. `Kathryn Braun

    It’s a pretty well-settled concept that you can have standing as an individual where you would not as a taxpayer at large.
    Workplaces can be incredibly impersonal, too. I worked at partnerships pretty much all of my career, and except in the biggest ones (Winston & Strawn had a few thousand lawyers working there when I did), you see your bosses daily. Look ’em in the eye. At USC, who is looking out for the professors’ interests? I doubt many taxpayers care to pay them more, and the administrators are only vaguely concerned when a prized researcher or teacher leaves to seek greener pastures. The faculty senate exists to advance the cause of professors who might not otherwise be able to do so effectively. It doesn’t have NLRB status, as I understand it, but the collective voice is more effective than a collection of random single ones.

    Just because you may have been a decent employer doesn’t mean many others are, and folks need jobs and cannot always be choosy about where they get them.

  10. Jeff Morrell

    Brad, have you ever worked in the blue collar world for a major corporation? Have you ever been paid less than a peer with less experience,less seniority and fewer qualifications? I know your opinion on unions can’t be swayed, but I think a large part of that is due to the world you live in. My quality of life has improved dramatically as a result of my shop organizing and coincidentally improved the atmosphere within our workplace.

  11. Steve Gordy

    You slide right past the main point with a dodgy use of terminology and falling into the fallacy of composition. Some “executives” get that title in lieu of more substantial composition. Your argument is that you were an executive and didn’t have a contract. So was I at one time. What I’m talking about is the kind of contract that permits Carly Fiorina to undermine Hewlett-Packard and walk away with $ 21 million. If that’s OK in our society, then why is it not OK for the average person to have an employment contract?

  12. Brad Warthen

    Silence, my buddy Ben, he says they ain’t got none a them unions in tha INfantry…

  13. Steven Davis II

    Brad how many times a week do you bring up getting “canned” by the newspaper?

    Jeff, he tried it once but they gave him too much crap about wearing a searsucker suit and bowtie with the required steel-toe work boots.

  14. Silence

    Haha, Jeff – I worked at the State of South Carolina so yes, I have been paid less for more qualifications and experience than my bosses. Which is why I no longer work there.

  15. Brad

    P.L.O.? Hot dawg! I reckon as how that’s the best danged job in the hull danged Air Farce!

    I recorded that on my DVR the other day, and once again noticed an interesting bit of trivia: Another one of the recruits is the actor who played Will Stockdale in the TV series.

  16. Scout

    I do think that Unions can go too far. In some cases it seems they have become as big or bigger bullys than the original problem bosses. That being said, there is no question that workers need some sort of voice but frequently don’t get it – in public as well as private situations. There’s got to be some way to achieve a happy medium.

  17. Brad

    To answer Jeff…

    You ask, “Have you ever been paid less than a peer with less experience,less seniority and fewer qualifications?” I’m sure I have, although I’ve never bothered to find out. If fact, I’ve never wanted to know. If they were making more than I was, I’d be unhappy. If I were making more than they were, then I’d fret about whether I thought that was fair to them.

    I have on occasion found out what others were paid by accident. One episode, about 10 or 12 years ago, stands out in my mind. A printout — the old-style dot matrix print, on that old kind of computer paper with alternating rows of green and white — landed in my IN box. I still don’t know how.

    I unfolded it, and immediately saw that it was salary information for all of senior staff. Senior staff was the vice presidents and other senior managers in the building, including all of the people who, like myself, reported to the publisher. The heads of news, advertising, circulation, finance, etc. Essentially my peer group.

    I only saw a couple of the salaries before folding it back and taking it straight to the publisher. I had been surprised to see that a couple of business-side people with huge responsibilities made considerably less money than I did. I had always sort of vaguely assumed that business side people made more money than we journalists. I mean, why else work on the business side of a newspaper, if not for the money? That was my chauvinistic journalistic perspective.

    But I found that the paper actually valued someone whose talents added quality to the product more than someone who directly worked bringing in revenue.

    Mind you, this was under an entirely different publisher from the one who laid me off.

    Oh, and to Steven — I mention being laid off a lot because it remains a big piece of how people identify me. I could avoid talking about it, but other people would bring it up. Everywhere I go, people relate to me as the editorial page editor of The State. Weirdly, I occasionally run into someone who thinks I’m still with the paper. Mentioning being laid off is my way of both acknowledging that yeah, I realize folks think of me that way, and explaining why I ain’t that-a-way no more, as Will Stockdale would say.

  18. Silence

    An SEIU organizer was attending a convention in Las Vegas and decided to check out the local brothels. When he got to the first one, he asked the Madam, “Is this a union house?”
    “No,” she replied, “it isn’t.”
    “Well, if I pay you $100, what cut do the girls get?” the man asked.
    “The house gets $60 and the girls get $40,” answered the madam.
    Offended at such unfair dealings, the union man stomped off down the street in search of a more equitable, hopefully unionized shop.
    His search continued until finally he reached a brothel where the Madam responded, “Why yes sir, this is a union house. ‘We pay our dues and observe all union rules.”
    The man asked, “And if I pay you $100, what cut do the girls get?”
    “The girls get $80 and the house gets $20.” said the house madam.
    “That’s more like it!” the union man said.
    He handed the Madam a $100 bill, looked around the room, and pointed to a stunningly attractive, gorgeous blue-eyed blonde.
    “I’d like her,” he said.
    “I’m sure you would, sir,” said the Madam. Then she gestured to a decrepit 82-year old woman in the corner, “but Ethel here has 60 years seniority and according to union work rules, she’s next.”

  19. Brad

    Now to answer Steve Gordy, who asks, “If that’s OK in our society, then why is it not OK for the average person to have an employment contract?”

    I think it’s fine for individuals to have contracts with their employers. Nothing against it. It’s a good way to set out clearly what is expected of you, and what you can expect from your employer.

    What I don’t like is contracts that are not with individuals, but with categories. I want my work to be about me and what I bring, and what my employer will pay for that.

    Did your mother ever tell you, when you were complaining that Johnny got to do something, or got some treat or award, that you should worry about yourself and not Johnny? I internalized that lesson early on. What arrangement somebody else has with my employer is their business, not mine.

    I really object to the idea that John, the hypothetical employee, should be paid exactly the same as everyone else who has worked at the job as long as he has, or has the same credentials, or a similar resume. John’s pay should be based on what he, personally, brings — on his talents and how he applies them.

    John and his employer should work that out between themselves, and you can write it into a contract if you wish. But I don’t think John should be paid based on what Joe and Fred and Mary, all of whom have similar resumes to his (or some other arbitrary measure, such as seniority), are paid.

  20. Silence

    Work classification rules are important for public employees. That way we don’t have Councilman XXXX’s brother-in-law making 200k being a part-time lifeguard at the Maxcy Pool.

    Once, when I worked in middle management for a certain state agency, I got a call from our head of HR and was “asked” to find a job for a child of a certain statewide elected official. Not being one to rock the boat, I immediately called the boy and tried to bring him in for an interview. I left him several messages over the next two weeks and never got a response.
    A month or two later I got a call from the head of HR asking if we’d found/made a job for XXXX’s kid. I coolly informed her that I’d called him several times and left him voicemails, but that he’d never called me back, and that I couldn’t help him out if he wasn’t even interested enough to call me back. She agreed, and added that his daddy would be VERY interested to hear that he hadn’t bothered to follow up. At that point, I mentioned to the HR lady that he wasn’t actually qualified anyhow, and she just nodded and chuckled. I never heard anything else about it after that. I felt like I had been selling out for even entertaining the thought and trying to give him a job, but I wasn’t in a position to stand on principle at the time. I had bills to pay and needed to eat.
    XXXX is still serving as a statewide elected official.

  21. Steven Davis II

    “I could avoid talking about it, but other people would bring it up.”

    Isn’t that kind of cruel? To keep reminding someone that they were fired or let go? Especially years later.

  22. bud

    But I don’t think John should be paid based on what Joe and Fred and Mary, all of whom have similar resumes to his (or some other arbitrary measure, such as seniority), are paid.

    That’s a bit of an oxymoron isn’t it? If the resumes are similar then by definition they can’t be arbitrary since they are are based on something defined.

    Brad is right that it’s good to get paid on what you bring to the organization. But in practice it’s extremely difficult to measure. That’s why companies establish measurable criteria. (This is a good example of how we numbers guys shake our heads at the intuitive folks like Brad. I just can’t stand to base ANYTHING on something that’s not measurable.)

  23. bud

    That way we don’t have Councilman XXXX’s brother-in-law making 200k being a part-time lifeguard at the Maxcy Pool.

    Especially this summer since Maxcy is closed. 🙂

  24. Brad

    Is Councilman XXXX related to the far better-known XXX of Internet fame?

    Yes, Bud, you’re right. To me, basing someone’s pay on something like degrees held or years on the job is to completely ignore what the person contributes to the organization. It seems extremely limiting, and largely irrelevant (once a certain modicum of competence is achieved).

    Measurable things like that are entirely arbitrary in my book. There are SOME relevant measurables. Say, if your workplace produces widgets, and all widgets are alike, an employee who produces more widgets (as long as they meet quality standards) is more valuable.

    But such things that don’t actually bear on the work you do — such as holding certain certificates or degrees, or having occupied the position X amount of time — is to me extremely arbitrary.

    And sure, my perception of this is formed by my own experiences. Once upon a time, long ago, I used to get to hire people — before the days of permanent hiring freezes in the newspaper biz.

    If anyone applied for the job with a master’s in journalism, I would wonder why they had spent the time getting such a degree. Had they not been able to spend that time working at a newspaper? And if they had had time on their hands, why didn’t they pursue a degree in an academic subject: history, political science, finance, foreign languages, or law, for instance?

  25. Silence

    Councilman XXXX is a hypothetical. Statewide elected official XXXX is a “republican” and a “fiscal watchdog”.

  26. bud

    Ok, I understand the issue. Pay according to how much an employee impacts the bottom line. Easy concept, but incredibly difficult to determine. I’d certainly use education, experience and some type of portfolio showing past accomplishments to guide me in the hiring process. My experience with face-to-face interviews is that they are utterly worthless. Some of the best employees I ever had were awful interviews and visa versa. Give me a history of accomplishment over a good interview any day.

  27. Scout

    Doug, I agree but what is a fair measure of performance when you consider that some children are harder to educate than others. Kind of like trying to measure the quality of doctor by mortality rate without considering who their caseload is – oncologists and geriatricians are going to come off looking worse despite their skill level. Likewise, special ed teachers and teachers in high poverty schools are potentially going to look worse depending what measure you choose to look at. I think it would be nice if an equitable way to measure teacher performance could be developed and I don’t think it is impossible but there are a LOT of variables and a LOT of potential to get it wrong if the person doing the judging doesn’t understand all the factors – which seems to happen a lot around here. I am not against merit pay; I just don’t trust the people in charge to have the subtlety to pull it off appropriately.

  28. Brad

    Not difficult at all. I’ve spent most of my life supervising other people, and I had no trouble at all telling who was good at their job and who was not.

    An interview can’t be the end-all and be-all, although if the interview goes badly (particularly in a field in which being good at interviewing others is a needed skill), it’s hard to imagine the rest going well.

    An anecdote along those lines… I brought in this young woman for an interview for a reporting job back in the early 80s. I had other supervisors interview her as well, so I could have the benefit of their impressions.

    How to describe her? She was… wispy. Wan. Quiet. Demure. Soft-spoken. The sort of girl you’re thinking of when you say “a mere slip of a girl,” partly because she was slight, but even more because her personality projected that.

    At one point toward the end of the process, in part because other editors had backed up my impression on this score, I asked her, very gently, whether she thought she was … assertive… enough to be a reporter.

    She dropped her gaze and began to weep, saying ever so softly, “Everyone asks me that…”

    My heart cracked, and I wanted to do something for her, but no, I didn’t hire her.

    You can get a lot from interviews.

  29. `Kathryn Braun

    Yes, except I interview like a dream.I have gotten jobs I was so unqualified for, outside of having a law degree, and I never lie or even shade the truth. People see things in me that maybe aren’t there….

    I also have experience working with people in high-pressured, competitive situations–up-or-out settings, and I was quite familiar with the work of most of the pack, and those who got promoted and those who got “asked to leave” were not at all the ones who I would have promoted/asked to leave. The guy they wanted to shoot hoops with, but whose work was sloppy and who forgot to return client calls, vs. the woman who worked her butt off and never made a mistake (not me, btw–I’m usually in the “lots of fun” category.)

  30. Brad

    Hiring lawyers would have to be tough. You would go a lot by interview, and by reputation.

    I mean, compared to hiring writers. Writers are known by their product, without even getting to the interview point. And sometimes they’re known widely for it.

    For instance — without even interviewing him, wouldn’t you want to consider hiring Corey Hutchins, if you had the right opening? I mention him as someone I’ve never actually worked with, but can tell from afar that he has valuable qualities.

  31. Brad

    I’d say the same about Cindi Scoppe — I would guess most readers can tell she’s good at what she does; it really tends to show in what she writes — but I have too much information to gauge that fairly.

  32. Steven Davis II

    “btw–I’m usually in the “lots of fun” category.”

    You don’t say.

  33. `Kathryn Braun

    Man, I totally would hire Corey, but I wonder if SCDP would? I mean, he’s the kind of guy who’d write “the letter” all the time….

  34. Doug Ross

    Performance of a teacher should be measured by the principal and the lead teachers. It can be completely subjective for all I care.

    I won’t bother trying to suggest we actually use data collected from PACT/PASS because then the response is that those tests only measure the student and not the teacher. Although in my opinion, if a teacher can show that she was able to move a certain number of students from one level (Basic) to another (Advanced) in a subject, I’d be more than willing to reward that performance.

    There are good teachers, average teachers, and lousy teachers. We’ve all had them, right? Why shouldn’t they be paid for what they do versus their degrees?

  35. Silence

    ‘Kathryn – I thought you were from Aiken. I never knew you’d lived over in Mount Pilot.

  36. Scout

    I don’t think I interview well. I would much rather them give me data and some time and let me write a sample IEP for them or put me in a room with a 3 year old. It’s much easier to be yourself with a 3 year old than with education bureaucrats who know nothing about speech pathology, yet somehow still tend to be the ones doing the interviewing, often. Brad, what if that submissive girl turned out to be a great reporter. There is no way to know now. I’m not suggesting you should have hired her – you have to make the best decision you can with the data you have available – just that the whole system is built on the premise that an interview is a valid indicator of future job performance, and what if that premise is wrong in some cases. We don’t have the data to know, since bad interviews don’t get hired and we have no corresponding job performance to analyze. I do think some personality types just don’t interview well despite being very capable in lots of other ways. Although the case of the interview for a reporter may be a special case – maybe you should have had her interview you, or write up a sample assignment.

  37. bud

    Brad, your anecdote proves nothing. Since you didn’t hire the young lady you don’t know whether she would have been a good reporter or not. I eagerly hired a couple of folks who did fabulous in an interview. But they turned out to be very disruptive and utterly disasterous as workers. On the other hand a couple of very shy, quiet types proved to be very competent and did their jobs with professionalism and courtesy to their fellow employees. I could have predicted job performance just as well with a flip of the coin. On the other hand college grades almost always provided a good indicator of who would work out and who wouldn’t.

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