by Erik Vanderhoff
I’ve been chewing on this for quite some time now as I’ve watched the reactions of various pundits and thinkers to the growing battle over public servants and what, if any, compensation they deserve for their work on behalf of the citizens of their municipality, county, state, or nation and, even more ominously, over whether or not the services they provide have any value to our society. Obviously, as a person whose job is funded by tax dollars (in this case, by the state of California), I have a pony in this race and I cannot remain objective – my conclusions are, of course, influenced by self-interest and self-regard. This does not, I hope, make them invalid; I’m a big believer that so long as someone is upfront about their ideological framing and remains committed to an honest discussion, then one’s conclusions are not de facto illegitimate – though they should always remain open to revision.
I’ve worked in some form of public service since graduating from college in 2001, from back-to-backing the graveyard shift at a halfway house for the mentally ill with a shift supervisor position at an emergency children’s shelter to special education and combining the best aspects of the two into my current position. Only two of my workplaces – including my current one – have been unionized. My employer is one in a series of non-profit agencies created by state legislation to administer California’s service system for its developmentally disabled population. My employer handles four counties, including one of the richest and most-populated, and serves some 13,000 clients. To give you an idea of the amount of work we do: Our phone tree fills one 8 ½ by 14 legal page; the people doing the case management carry caseloads that average about 90 per worker, and we are additionally responsible for engaging vendors in taxpayer funded services, policing those services, and auditing the vendors for adherence to professional standards and state and federal laws. We are also responsible for making sure that available “generic services” – other local, state, and federal agencies; public and non-public schools; health insurance providers; and so forth – are also meeting their obligations in order to efficiently maximize the individual’s eligible benefits before spending additional tax dollars. We have a serious commitment: insuring a vulnerable population’s safety and well-being by being effective and efficient stewards of tax dollars entrusted to us.
This frequently brings us in to conflict with families, advocates, politicians, and our service providers. Not too few of these service providers are large agencies, with large and vocal constituencies, and many of them are politically powerful within the select community of legislators and state executives that are in charge of our service system. When they get upset, our management has to do a delicate balancing act between system disruption and current harm. As a result, vendors often get their way. And like any industry anywhere, our vendors are run by all types, from the committed and honest to the sociopathic and avaricious. I came across one of the latter, and when I told him “No,” he decided to set out to destroy me.
Before this incident, I was rather blasé about participating in the union. I didn’t appreciate being in a “union shop” where I had to pay dues (or have an identical amount deducted and “donated” to the United Way). I don’t like the “us versus them” dynamic that often crops up with respect to agency management. I kept my head down, did my work, and made myself known to management as someone who is very good at his job. I take this job seriously. So when I go after one of our providers, it’s with an eye towards how best to serve the individuals in my care. Sometimes that means bargaining, or letting minor infractions slide. And sometimes that means coming down like the wrath of a god with horrible dyspepsia. Usually I try to split the difference, but in this case the vendor was flat-out breaking not just our protocols (and therefore their contract with us) but the law. So I called them out on it.
At this point, the person’s vendetta became personal. He tracked down my non-work related writings at my personal blog, in old college newspapers – we’re talking a stalker-level commitment to smearing me – and so forth and then sent them to my employer. When that didn’t work, he began accusing me of making threats against his personal safety, going not just to my supervisor but to the board of directors and to the state agency that oversees us. There was no merit to his charges, though I had publicly verbally condemned his behavior and given a no-holds barred negative assessment of his agency outside of work. It required hours of work by my supervisor, her director, and the executive director, as well as our labor law attorney, to respond to his extended campaign. Despite the caliber of my work, I am not a unique, irreplaceable asset; my employer would have been perfectly justified in jettisoning me to the curb, just to placate a politically connected individual who was making their jobs more difficult than they already were.
But because we are a union shop, because we have a contract that mandates an investigation by both the union and management before punitive action is taken, the facts of the case were collected and presented. The state executives and politicians were satisfied that there was no merit to the serious charges, and I was issued a written reprimand for disparaging a business partner in public. I continue to have a job I enjoy (a job with no private sector equivalent) and provide service to a vulnerable population. I wouldn’t be able to do that without a union.
The thing that pundits like Andrew Sullivan, Megan McArdle and David Brooks don’t seem to grasp is that public sector unions shield public servants from political pressures. We have to interact with politically connected, powerful, influential people every day, from the building inspector who decides if a new development is up to code to auditors and so forth. We are answerable to our managers, who are not members of the bargaining unit, and they to their directors, who are also not members of the union and are either political appointees or serve at the pleasure of political appointees. Managers in public service walk a very fine line between the enormous pressures they get from legislators and executives above and from their service constituencies below. Unionization allows workers to perform their duties to the taxpayer without fear for their livelihood. It is a powerful shield from the vicissitudes of political life.
One argument I’ve heard is that allowing public sector unions the same rights to lobby politicians is that this creates a fundamental conflict of interest. I’ve heard this framed as “electing the people they then negotiate with,” which makes absolutely no sense if you have even the tiniest inkling of how government actually works: most bargaining occurs between management representatives and union chapter representatives – both made up of career civil servants. Now, clearly, there is some tension: as I’ve stated above, managers are beholden, at some level, to politicians and political appointees, who apportion budgets and set regulations. But unions do not negotiate directly with legislators, who are free to craft budgets with input from a myriad of interests – including private and public employees unions. If there is a tension between unions lobbying politicians and responsibility to the taxpayers, it is no different from the tension between legislators writing the laws that lead to the regulation of any industry and those industries’ lobbying of the legislators. It is the inherent elephant in the room when we conflate legislation with politics and allow money to become the driving engine of politics.
All unions have a certain tension: they must balance the health of their industry with the health of their memberships. In public service, this tension is all the more fraught because we’re dealing with a finite amount of funds; we’re not able to look at obscene profits for corporations and say, “Hey, where’s our piece?” A business mentality is, frankly, antithetical to public service. As I’ve said before, the problem with demarcating services from servants is that for most government agencies, they’re the same thing: the services are the employees delivering them. You can’t cut police budgets without having fewer officers. That is not the case for my own service system, where we have an operations and a “purchase of service” budget; the operations formula – and therefore our salary schedule — has not been revised since 1995. In the face of a rapidly growing service constituency, that money has stayed flat for 16 years, resulting in a static number of positions to provide legally mandated case management and auditing services for more and more people (I performed a time study for our agency that found that just our legally-mandated work, never mind “best practice,” encompasses more work hours than are available in a year). Fortunately for our constituents, the purchase of service dollars have increased during that time, since it is by law tied to the number of people eligible for services.
The current narrative seems to trend towards viewing public employees as monks, who should eschew material reward in favor of spiritual fulfillment. One cannot eat self-righteousness, nor does the satisfaction of a job well done provide much heat in winter. But, the claim goes, their benefits and pay are far more generous than private sector workers. Indeed, there is some truth to this in the form of benefits – pensions have disappeared from the private sector in favor of retirement investment vehicles that are far cheaper for employers – and, as we’ve seen, even more subject to the whims and whimsy of the markets. Roughly a third of public employees receive a compensation structure that fifty years ago was viewed as the backbone of a prosperous society, the bedrock upon which the most successful middle class in the history of the world was built. Public employees are not outliers because they are compensated beyond compare; they are outliers because they are one of the few bastions of the once-strong middle class that remain.
You cannot divorce a public service from the public servants who perform it. You cannot divorce a reduction in those services or that workforce from the economic fallout it will generate. And you cannot maintain an argument against public employee unionization that does not invalidate the very structure of modern American politics.