When Unions Go Bad

Occasionally unions are a good tool for righting genuine injustices in the working world, but often they later become organizations focused on their own self-perpetuation. Because all union members pay the same dues, this self perpetuation often takes the form of protecting bad workers from the consequences of their actions. The good workers, after all, will almost certainly be treated well by their employers anyway, so the only service the union can provide when there are no real injustices to fight is to take care of workers who are incompetant or just don’t care — allowing them to do the minimum and still get annual raises rather than pink slips.

According to this recent article from the New Yorker, hardly a conservative publication, the New York City teachers union has clearly reached that point and then some.

In a windowless room in a shabby office building at Seventh Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street, in Manhattan, a poster is taped to a wall, whose message could easily be the mission statement for a day-care center: “Children are fragile. Handle with care.” It’s a June morning, and there are fifteen people in the room, four of them fast asleep, their heads lying on a card table. Three are playing a board game. Most of the others stand around chatting. Two are arguing over one of the folding chairs. But there are no children here. The inhabitants are all New York City schoolteachers who have been sent to what is officially called a Temporary Reassignment Center but which everyone calls the Rubber Room.

These fifteen teachers, along with about six hundred others, in six larger Rubber Rooms in the city’s five boroughs, have been accused of misconduct, such as hitting or molesting a student, or, in some cases, of incompetence, in a system that rarely calls anyone incompetent.

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

“You can never appreciate how irrational the system is until you’ve lived with it,” says Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor, who was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg seven years ago.

Neither the Mayor nor the chancellor is popular in the Rubber Room. “Before Bloomberg and Klein took over, there was no such thing as incompetence,” Brandi Scheiner, standing just under the Manhattan Rubber Room’s “Handle with Care” poster, said recently. Scheiner, who is fifty-six, talks with a raspy Queens accent. Suspended with pay from her job as an elementary-school teacher, she earns more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, and she is, she said, “entitled to every penny of it.” She has been in the Rubber Room for two years. Like most others I encountered there, Scheiner said that she got into teaching because she “loves children.”

“Before Bloomberg and Klein, everyone knew that an incompetent teacher would realize it and leave on their own,” Scheiner said. “There was no need to push anyone out.” Like ninety-seven per cent of all teachers in the pre-Bloomberg days, she was given tenure after her third year of teaching, and then, like ninety-nine per cent of all teachers before 2002, she received a satisfactory rating each year.

“But they brought in some new young principal from their so-called Leadership Academy,” Scheiner said. She was referring to a facility opened by Klein in 2003, where educators and business leaders, such as Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric, hold classes for prospective principals. “This new principal set me up, because I was a whistle-blower,” Scheiner said. “She gave me an unsatisfactory rating two years in a row.Then she trumped up charges against me and sent me to the Rubber Room. So I’m fighting, and waiting it out.”

The United Federation of Teachers, the U.F.T., was founded in 1960. Before that, teachers endured meagre salaries, tyrannical principals, witch hunts for Communists, and gender discrimination against a mostly female workforce (at one point, there was a rule requiring any woman who got pregnant to take a two-year unpaid leave). Drawing its members from a number of smaller and ineffective teachers’ groups, the U.F.T. coalesced into a tough trade union that used strikes and political organizing to fight back. By the time Bloomberg took office, forty-two years later, many education reformers believed that the U.F.T. and its political allies had gained so much clout that it had become impossible for the city’s Board of Education, which already shared a lot of power with local boards, to maintain effective school oversight. In 2002, with the city’s public schools clearly failing, the State Legislature granted control of a new Department of Education to the new mayor, who had become a billionaire by building an immense media company, Bloomberg L.P., that is renowned for firing employees at will and not giving contracts even to senior executives.

Bloomberg quickly hired Klein, who, as an Assistant Attorney General in the Clinton Administration, was the lead prosecutor in a major antitrust case against Microsoft. When Klein was twenty-three, he took a year’s leave of absence from Harvard Law School to study education and teach math to sixth graders at an elementary school in Queens, where he grew up. Like Bloomberg, Klein came from a world far removed from the borough-centric politics and bureaucracy of the old board.

Test scores and graduation rates have improved since Bloomberg and Klein took over, but when the law giving the mayor control expired, on July 1st, some Democrats in the State Senate balked at renewing it, complaining that it gave the mayor “dictatorial” power, as Bill Perkins, a state senator from Manhattan, put it. Nevertheless, by August the senators had relented and voted to renew mayoral control.

One thing that the legislature did not change in 2002 was tenure, which was introduced in New York in 1917, as a good-government reform to protect teachers from the vagaries of political patronage. Tenure guarantees teachers with more than three years’ seniority a job for life, unless, like those in the Rubber Room, they are charged with an offense and lose in the arduous arbitration hearing.
[read the rest]

The abuses documented here are almost uminaginable: A teacher written up for having been so drunk on the job she was found unconscious in her classroom by her students, who was nonetheless returned to the job. Over a thousand teachers who haven’t worked in over six months because they were let go by their previous schools and either have not accepted or have not been offered another position, yet collect full salary for doing nothing at home. And on and on.

President Obama has on occasion spoken out against this kind of teachers union activity, putting protecting bad teachers far ahead of teaching students, but he has yet to actually take any actions against the teachers unions which are such a high profile part of the Democratic coallition. Nor has the New York state government, also in the lock of Democratic interest groups, been able to do anything about this appauling situation. So although there is some good thinking coming out of a few Democrats, standing up to the teachers unions on behalf of actually educating children (and come to that, on behalf of the many teachers who do good work and would greatly benefit for a more performance-based work environment) is thus far something only really happening on the GOP side of the aisle.

This kind of foolishness, which ties exactly with my father’s experience of being forced to join a public employees union which established a union shop in the community college that he worked for, is why I support Right To Work laws.

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  1. Darwin,

    With regards to this,

    “The good workers, after all, will almost certainly be treated well by their employers anyway…”

    I wouldn’t necessarily assume that. Good workers can and have been mistreated – especially by the corporate criminals that have raided their pension funds. Lifetimes of work have gone up in smoke.

    That being said, I do agree with you on the general corruption of unions. They are stalwart guardians of the status quo, and they have always been hostile to cooperatives and distributism in general – that is, to ideas and programs that abolish “the working class” and make the unions completely useless.

  2. You might as well call the post “When People Go Bad.” Corporations have no automatic step up on virtue where human associations are concerned. Perhaps the best one can hope for is a series of checks and balances: unions strong enough to counter the excesses of employers, or perhaps even better, employers including workers on boards of directors and embracing a more democratic ideal in the management of companies. Otherwise the Henry Ford ideal of USSR-style big business will hold sway.

  3. It’s certainly true that employers (whether corporations or public entities such as the NY City public school districts, as in this case) do not have any guarantee of virtue. However, except in situations where employers end up treating _all_ employees badly (the which are situations which tend to fuel union creation and strength), it’s actively in their interest to treat good employees well. All you have to assume to predict that is that employers are selfish — and I don’t think anyone would disagree that’s a fairly reasonable assumption. Good employees help employers accomplish their goals and make money, so they’ll usually treat them pretty well, if only out of selfishness.

    However, unions have somewhat more perverse incentives, in a situation in which people are not all being treated badly. If the good employees are being treated pretty well and rewarded for good performance, then the only way for the union to prove itself useful is by protecting the bad workers and making sure they continue to stay employed and get raises despite poor performance.

    This, in turn, puts more burden on the good workers.

    I think to a great extent this can be mitigated by not allowing closed shops in which all employees are forced to join the union.

  4. I don’t think unions have more perverse incentives at all. Sadly, some employers do have goals in mind–personal goals that exist at odds with those of the company and employees. I’m thinking of one example of Jeffrey Loria running the Montreal MLB team into the ground, hoping for a sale to a US market or a buyout from other owners. More recently, we see executives of AIG, Enron, and other names of ill-repute running companies into the ground, taking personal profits, and thriving in a general scenario of lawlessness–literally.

    As for the problem of unions, if employees had a seat at the table in which company policies were decided and set, that might mitigate the need for unions to a degree. But the notion that business owners and executives will naturally have the best interests of employees at heart is, frankly, naive. Some bosses are incompetent or corrupt. And the best do thrive thanks to good employees. I think one has to be either pro-union or pro-democracy. The alternative is to be pro-fascism.

  5. Sadly, some employers do have goals in mind–personal goals that exist at odds with those of the company and employees. I’m thinking of one example of Jeffrey Loria running the Montreal MLB team into the ground, hoping for a sale to a US market or a buyout from other owners. More recently, we see executives of AIG, Enron, and other names of ill-repute running companies into the ground, taking personal profits, and thriving in a general scenario of lawlessness–literally.

    It’s telling that one has to pick out rare, though high profile, exceptions to make this point. Most businesses are not in the middle of destroying themselves in the misguided hope of either gaining illegal personal profits or selling themselves off to another company. And even in most situations where a company is trying to be bought out, keeping the good employees motivated with good pay and benefits remains a priority. Generally, it’s only businesses in the middle of failing which turn to treating even their good employees badly — and obviously, companies are highly motivated not to fail.

    As for the problem of unions, if employees had a seat at the table in which company policies were decided and set, that might mitigate the need for unions to a degree.

    I guess I just don’t see how this one is very compelling. Certainly, I have opinions about lots of things my company is doing, both in regards to direction and to HR. But honestly, I would have no more input if I along with all 40,000 other employees got to elect a couple representatives to go and pretend to have our best interests at heart. My real means of exercising democracy is deciding whether or not to go look for a job elsewhere.

    I mean, really, we all get to vote for our congressmen, state reps, and city councilmen, but to what extent can we really say that those levels of government always do what we want?

    But the notion that business owners and executives will naturally have the best interests of employees at heart is, frankly, naive. Some bosses are incompetent or corrupt. And the best do thrive thanks to good employees.

    See, that’s the whole point — employers don’t have to have employees best interests at heart. If they act totally selfishly, they will end up working hard to retain good employees. Because without good employees, they can’t run their companies. Their interest serves us better than their good intentions — if they even have good intentions.

    I’ve had a lot of managers over the years (three in the last six months, actually — it’s re-org season) but I’ve never had one, in a good or bad company, who didn’t recognize the importance of trying to retain good employees by treating them well. Some are really bad at telling who is actually a good employee. Some are really annoying or abrasive to work with. But none who don’t recognize the need to reward good employees. I’m sure there are some out there, but through survival of the fittest, there won’t be many.

    The big exception to this is when there’s a huge glut of employees available, and they can all be treated interchangeably. This is when self interest will direct employers to treat all employees badly — and in such circumstances many do. That’s when unions have a legitimate purpose. But without that labor glut, they turn to perverse incentives to justify their existence and things get bad very quickly.

  6. There are already a lot of checks and balances inherent in a functioning market economy. As Darwin mentions, the most powerful “vote” an employee has is to vote with his feet — and walk out the door if necessary. Obviously there are labor market conditions that can make such a move impractical for an employee, such as monopsony labor markets, but these are generally an exception rather than the rule.

  7. “It’s telling that one has to pick out rare, though high profile, exceptions to make this point. Most businesses are not in the middle of destroying themselves in the misguided hope of either gaining illegal personal profits or selling themselves off to another company.”

    And yet haven’t you done the same in making your point against unions?

    The point is that businesses do indeed destroy themselves by any number of human, fallible means. Behaving to maximize the profit margin isn’t a perfect game. As for a low-profile but everyday occurrence, ask your local banks how many local mortgages they hold.

    As for the my-company-love-it-or-leave-it approach, I’d prefer to stay and change things for the better, even if it meant a boss was sent packing or was reassigned to do good elsewhere.

  8. I’m sorry, with due respect to my friend Darwin, I must disagree that the ability to leave one’s job is somehow a democratic check on corporate authority.

    This may be the case if one is a valued commodity which is not easily replaced; how often is this actually the case with the average worker in the typical job? Like it or not, one of the defining features of modern capitalism is undifferentiated, homogeneous labor. This is especially true as the education and expertise required for a job decreases. There will always be people looking for work, but there won’t always be decent employers who pay a family wage – even Adam Smith knew the advantage was to the capitalist and not the worker.

    This is why Catholic social teaching has always emphasized and encouraged more widespread ownership; because it is really only through ownership that one acquires a say in the administration of things, and only through ownership that one is regarded as more than a repository of labor power.

    Again, with due respect my friend Darwin, I think sometimes you tend to generalize your personal experience. From everything I hear, you seem to be an educated, skilled, and valued worker, a professional or semi-professional. That puts you in a somewhat better bargaining position than the average undifferentiated worker.

    Personally, I think free labor is something that ought to be confined to the professional classes, who will always possess greater bargaining power, while a more secure and stable system rooted in ownership is in place for less skilled workers, who will most likely never possess it. The only problem with this is global competition – any company that can, will go to the third world to take advantage of economic and political conditions that make the pool of available workers desperate and servile.

    So the great challenge is how to make dignified labor competitive with desperate labor.

  9. As for a low-profile but everyday occurrence, ask your local banks how many local mortgages they hold.

    Roughly 25% of the outstanding residential mortgage debt is held on the books of banks, savings & loan associations, and credit unions. Most loans have been sold off (often quite quickly) to secondary mortgage brokers (of which the most prominent are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). Mortgages on commercial real estate do tend to be held and serviced by banks, but such mortgages amount to only about 20% of outstanding mortgage debt.

  10. Seeing what has happened to both the public sector and the auto industry, suggest a goal of policy might be to dissolve the existing body of trade and industrial unions in favor of producer co-operatives and company unions whose elections would be supervised by local boards, much as elections to school boards are. Fiorello LaGuardia was during his lifetime very dubious about collective bargaining in the public sector, and he turned out to be right.

  11. I might suggest that the appropriate function for unions would be the settlement of workplace disputes, the provision of channels of information flow from the bottom to the top of an institutional hierarchy (the University of Rochester was during the time I worked there an employer badly in need of this), and as a means of negotiating burden sharing among owners, managers and workers during economic crises. Unions are often quite piss-poor at this last, and are often so in response to the opinions of membership. It is poor social policy to make use of tools of collective bargaining to raise wages, as this acts to redistribute income from unorgainized workers to organized workers and reduce overall levels of unemployment. If you are concerned about income distribution, a restructuring of the tax code would be a preferred policy measure.

  12. More recently, we see executives of AIG, Enron

    A manufacturer of my acquaintance described AIG as “a great company destroyed by five guys in London”. My local buddy in the insurance business explained that the disaster was the work of its Financial Products Unit, a small office geographically segregated from the rest of the company and doing work poorly understood by the insurance men running the company. They were writing credit default swaps on mortgage backed securities; the supervisor of the unit, Joseph Cassano, had only a dim awareness of the composition of the mortgage pools from which the securities they were insuring derived and the unit warehoused the risk rather than hedging as other buyers and sellers of credit default swaps do. AIG was brought down by incompetence and inattention on the part of a small but key group of employees, not by self-dealing.

  13. Two quick points:

    – While I’m dubious of the overall value of collective bargaining in regards to wages (I think it too often only serves to lock out those not already in a unionized job) I’m not necessarily trying to attack unions for truly unskilled and interchangeable workers in this post. My big beef with with cases such as the NY Teachers (or the California Public Employees union my father was forced to join — and always hated) which is representing people who are college educated, skilled workers who are (in the cases cited in the article) actually making more than I am. I find the idea of teachers making six figure incomes needing a closed union shop pretty laughable. And as described, I think at that point the union will often seek to justify its existence primarily by protecting the incompetent. While the article shows an extreme example of this, that was my father’s number one complain with his union. On various occasions the union kept his department from firing or disciplining: a custodian who was widely known to be stealing college property, a department secretary who refused to learn how to use a computer and most of whose work thus ended up being done for free by my dad, an admin who didn’t show up for work half the time, etc.

    – While I’ll readily admit my thinking on these topics is heavily shaded by my experiences, I will say in my defense that although these days I definitely work in a professional type role, I started out ten years ago making within a couple dollars of minimum wage and put in time in retail ($5/hr), call centers ($8/hr) and basic admin/shipping/warehouse work ($14/hr) — all of which I’d argue are pretty working class ways to spend your time. And so when I say that employers naturally try to retain good workers, I’m thinking not only of the marketers I work with now, but also of good retail people in the bookstore and good phone bank callers and good order takers, warehouse guys, fork-lift drivers and delivery drivers. Now obviously, there’s a realistic limit to how much extra consideration being a good worker will get you in these lines of work — just as there is in regards to union agitation — because there’s a limit to how much these jobs are worth. But I have seen employers at those levels go to moderately decent lengths to keep good people at those levels, which adds to my impression that this is a pretty universal phenomenon.

  14. While we’re on the confessional track, I’ll add that I have an abiding lack of trust of authority, especially leaders who recognize no accountability. In my own hourly-wage experiences in high school and college I saw bosses value employees, but I also saw employers view them and their ideas as threatening.

    I don’t see how fallible and sinful human beings can escape the temptation for destructive self-interest. I certainly don’t see employers as possessing any inherent moral superiority in regard to good behavior.

    Rather than come down with or against unions or corporations or management in general, maybe it’s better to just say that good behavior is good, bad behavior is bad, and we should work to eradicate the latter and encourage the former in all systems.

  15. Since all people are sinners, all organizations made up of people are subject to corruption and abuse of power. This applies equally to employers and unions.

    However, this does not mean that the basic right of workers to organize should be denied or withdrawn because SOME unions abuse their power, any more than parental rights should be denied or withdrawn from everyone because some parents are abusive.

    Actually I am not a big fan of most unions. I’ve never belonged to one and honestly hope I never have to.

    My least favorite union right now is SEIU, which was a big supporter of our (ahem) esteemed ex-governor Blago; in fact the wiretaps record Blago raising the possibility of SEIU giving him a job as part of a quid pro quo for the Obama Senate seat appointment. Personally I think they are just as crooked as the Teamsters under Jimmy Hoffa if not more so. Anyone they endorse would automatically lose my vote — if they even HAD my vote in the first place, that is.

  16. I have been on a local school board, dealing with the unions. My wife is a member of the teachers’ union in another school district.

    I have seen the senior members of the union, who are well represented on the negotiating team, pad things in the contract for the senior teachers at the expense of the junior teachers, even threatening to strike if we balanced things a bit more between the senior and junior teaching staff.

    I have seen the teachers union over and over talk a so-so game about “the kids,” but when there was a conflict, they always yelled for the teachers and the heck with the students. I’m thinking, for example, of arguments about the size of salaries and benefits, in a time of fixed income, so class size is the only other variable that will make income equal outgo.

    I had a teacher’s union rep tell me “the only reason high school sports exists is so new teachers can get paid extra for coaching. When they’ve saved up the down payment on a house, it’s time for someone else to have the job.” EVERYTHING’S about us!

    I’ve seen principals demand time clock punching behavior from their teachers (e.g. you may not leave one minute early, even if you are going to put in two hours tonight at home, off the clock), “I have the power over you and don’t you forget it” type behavior that is completely out of date in the private sector. The result is an institutional hardening of the arteries, as petty grievances get bargained into union contracts with a one size fits all answer.

    I’ve seen repeated “please pass the trash” behavior by principals, who can’t fire incompetent teachers or even teachers where there is misbehavior that isn’t quite bad enough to get them jailed. Instead, they wait until there is a school with an opening and a principal who is retiring. Then the bad teacher is transferred to a new assignment in that building. The old principal doesn’t care, she’s retiring and the new principal isn’t in place yet.

    Union leadership work, the last refuge of a poor teacher.

    But the worst part of the system is the flow of money from the teachers’ union dues into the pockets of politicians as campaign contributions, so the politicians will give the inmates the keys to the asylum. Those who have the gold make the rules.

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