Labor Roundtable: Erik Vanderhoff

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.

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48 thoughts on “Labor Roundtable: Erik Vanderhoff

  1. Erik, you make a really trenchant point about the union serving as a buffer between the public service worker and political pressures, one worth considering. Certainly in your example, the procedural buttress of the union work seems to have been a major factor in saving your job after your dispute with the vendor.

    Perhaps it’s my contrarian streak raising itself for no good reason, but the first thing that popped into my mind while reacting to this was “what about teachers and religion?” Creationism is politically popular with at least a segment of the population, a segment that is very vocal. My teacher friends resist the idea of teaching creationism and nevertheless get direct pressure from parents to do so. At the same time, there are other teachers who seem to insist on teaching creationism, sometimes through the back door and others who simply defy the ban on doing so. Either way, the teachers get political pressure, from the parents who are stakeholders in their schools, to break the law and teach religion in the classroom, and the union serves to keep them all working whether they bow to that pressure or they resist it.

    Is this appropriate, and does this alter your perception that public sector unions either do or should shield public employees from pressure? Should this be done on a case-by-case basis?

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    • “Should this be done on a case-by-case basis?”

      Ummm, sure and my years of experience with unions shows me that all cases are individual, “case-by-case.” The universal that unions seek to provide, regarding discipline or termination, is some semblance of due process. That is a concept you are much more familiar with than me.

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    • The policy problem gets even weirder upon examination. My wife was a bilingual special ed teacher: every few years, the pendulum would swing, this year it was inclusion for her students. Next year it was segregation. The regular teachers hated inclusion: they demanded both the SpecEd teacher and her teacher’s aide to help manage the never-on-task SpecEd students. But when it was segregation, those same teachers didn’t want to share resources, especially lab resources, with SpecEd.

      Curriculum was another problem: often it was brought down like the Ten Commandments from atop Mt. Sinai, wildly inappropriate to the SpecEd students. My wife would substitute her own, geared to the IEP but it was always a fight with the district, whose office was right next door to her school.

      Well, it couldn’t last forever. Eventually, she was assaulted one too many times. The student wasn’t expelled: she left, losing her pension rights. It just wasn’t worth the struggle. Nobody in that situation could save it. Though it might seem unions have power, often they can’t really defend a member.

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      • Special ed law is actually an example of teachers unions working in a manner they thought would benefit the special education teachers and ended up hindering them. It’s a pretty interesting case study that would probably be worthy of its own post.

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        • Sadly, I cannot agree with the conclusion wherein the union was working at cross purposes to the SpecEd teachers. The problem lay foursquare in the administration and the petty politics of an underfunded school district. He who pays the fiddler will call the tune: the State of Illinois made life intolerable for everyone involved.

          I only home schooled one child, my son, who angrily declared he was learning nothing at school and it was true. I should have home schooled the two others. Mercifully, my wife quit about the time my son was in his sophomore year of high school and her classroom size was reduced to 1.

          Below, I see exhibits of visceral hatred for the unions, excusing the administration and the state boards of ed for their failures. To these much-exercised souls, I would recommend casting a shadow on the nearest public school, that their fantasies may be dispelled. The situation is even worse than they can imagine: as John Dewey’s vision dies, the public school has become little more than a jail for our children. When teachers have become prison guards and students prisoners, I presume they will be happy again.

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    • I’m not sure why the example is relevant. Creationism in the classroom is a matter of curriculum and intent: The purpose of a science class is to teach the accepted bedrock principles of science to students. Creationism is not accepted as a principle of science. A teacher in a comparative philosophy or religion class would be free to discuss creationism ad nauseum. The union would have no role here absent any disciplinary action the administration might take if a teacher were to teach (or not teach) creationism in class, depending on the structure of the contract. If, for example, the teacher taught creationism in violation of explicit curriculum standards, and the school sought disciplinary action, they would defend the teacher in that disciplinary action. They may or may not have much they can do, depending on the due process agreed to in the contract, the clarity of the standards that were violated, and the nature of the punishment sought.

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    • Something similar could be said for Police Unions, who protect officers accused of wrong doing, while leaving police officers who report the wrong doing out to dry.

      (I can provide examples if you want, but Radley Balko lists such events regularly)

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  2. It is a powerful shield from the vicissitudes of political life.

    Isn’t that why Chester Arthur invented the civil service system?

    . 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?

    The only corporations I know making obscene profits are those in the porn industry

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  3. Thanks. A well-written piece. This seems especially important:

    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.

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    • This is probably just a difference in viewpoints, but I don’t see the bolded portion as being all that significant. It’s like saying, “both made up of people with careers in textile manufacturing.”

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  4. …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.

    Can you cite anyone saying that state employees should all serve pro bono?

    I’d stipulate that signs carried by angry protesters only get half credit in answering the question.

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    • Conservative may not want them to serve pro bono, but every action I see taken by Republican office holders indicates they want to see them working for as little possible, with as little benefits as possible, with as little rights as possible.

      I mean, I don’t decry them too much for that. After all, they’ve gotten most American’s to think that’s how it’s always been in the private sector since time immemorial. So why not destroy the last memorial of when the middle class actually had power.

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  5. 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;

    This is exactly bass ackwards. It’s the public service unions behaving as if funds are infinite. (Have you not seen the “tax the rich more” etc. signs being waved around Wisconsin?)

    In a private company, you see the revenue of the company, and you work within that framework. I, for one, have not seen unions in the private sector telling companies “you know what, you need to charge more money for what the company sells.”

    But for the public sector, theoretically, every damn penny of the 14 trillion dollar GDP is up for grabs. Just raise someone’s taxes a bit, and give it to us. Someone, somewhere, some rich guy, has a piece of that money that you should take and give to us. They won’t miss it.

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    • jeff “I, for one, have not seen unions in the private sector telling companies, ” you know what, you need to charge more for what the company sells”.” You may not choose to accept it, but this does happen.

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  6. “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.”

    And that’s the point where you file a libel suit against the vendor in question, whose provably-false statements caused you significant professional injury.

    “[M]ost bargaining occurs between management representatives and union chapter representatives – both made up of career civil servants. ”

    I think that this is the first time I’ve ever heard someone argue that allowing an entrenched unelected bureaucracy to do all the actual governing is a good thing.

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          • I thought the party line these days was that LOOG wasn’t libertarian. At least, that’s what ED Kain seems to be saying at Balloon-Juice. Of course, your argument is pretty fatuous in any case. One doesn’t have to be a “Washington Post” to read WaPo, nor does one have to be an Aristotelian to read the Metaphysics. Come to that, I’ve even met some non-libertarians who had read Ayn Rand.

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          • Oh, I get it. I’m only allowed to read points of view with which I agree. So much for broadening my horizons. Eric, a superb post. I have spent a part of the last fifty years dispelling the stereotype of the fat union rep in the $4000 sharkskin suit. My own union rep in the 1950s owned one grey business suit and had one pair of leather shoes with cardboard covering the holes in the soles.

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      • No; I’m suggesting that “the unions are the only thing that saved me from ruin” overstates the case.

        I mean, if you want to interpret that as “Erik’s employers should have fired him”–actually, no, you can’t interpret it that way. You can interpret it as “if Erik’s employers had fired him then he would have had options.”

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  7. “Unionization allows workers to perform their duties to the taxpayer SLOWLY, POORLY, AND PUGNACIOUSLY, OR NOT AT ALL, without fear for their livelihood.”

    There, I fixed it for you.

    Sorry, I worked as a temp at a major USPS facility one Christmas. Any union organizer not in a Federal prison is a blot on this nation of ours. I’ve seen quite enough of young, healthy men standing around with their hands in their pockets watching small, middle-aged women do heavy, dangerous (to somebody their size and strength) work. Everything is purely rule-bound. Common sense is regarded with amusement, at best. Every job is milked. Every single job, no exceptions. Nobody cares about the actual results. The only goal is putting forth the absolute minimum of effort without breaking any rules, and God forbid you antagonize the shop steward, that petty, power-mad, microscopic little pinprick.

    Every single union grievance in that facility during my time there (and a great number of threats to file grievances) was a complaint about somebody being too productive. Read that sentence again. And again. Keep reading it until it sinks in.

    That was the norm there. I know two career postal workers socially. Both have told me that everything I saw was absolutely typical. Both hate the place.

    Everything you say presupposes that government employees are vastly superior, morally, to the common run. What do you base that assumption on? On your ideological priors, that’s what. In fact, it’s the opposite.

    They are people who choose dull, stultifying, miserably bureaucratized jobs, where excellence is regarded as a threat, and the only quality that is rewarded is showing up and not rocking the boat for a maximum number of years. They choose those jobs and choose to spend their lives in them. They hate those jobs. They stay in them anyway. They stay because they can’t get fired for incompetence, and they’ll put up with pretty much anything in exchange for that guarantee.

    What kind of person is THAT afraid of being fired for incompetence? An incompetent, that’s who.

    You either don’t know what the f**k you are talking about, or you are a truly evil liar.

    Every sincerely, devoted, ideologically blinkered Democrat I know who has had personal experience with unions HATES them. Bitterly. Savagely. They f*****g hate them. These are people who would vote for a pool of vomit if Nancy Pelosi told them to. Blind, ignorant, monomaniacal ideologues. They couldn’t think a single original or critical thought to save their lives. They are the simplest intellectual machines the human mind can imagine. You can visualize the kind of Democrat I’m talking about, right? People you’d really admire and look up to. These folks believed in unions with every fiber of their being until they joined one, or worked with union labor somewhere, and when that happened they dropped unionism from their little toolkit of unquestioned orthodoxies like a red-hot radioactive cockroach. They were sickened beyond belief.

    Because it really is that bad.

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    • “Every sincerely, devoted, ideologically blinkered Democrat I know who has had personal experience with unions HATES them. Bitterly. Savagely. They f*****g hate them.”

      Well, I know 10 times as many Republicans, who are 10 times as fanatical as your set, and that all love unions, and would eagerly lay down their lives for unions.

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      • I also have an unverifiable anecdote which I will insist overwhelms all rational argumentation.

        I once knew a libertarian who hunted union members for sport. With each primal victory he would glory in the blood of his ideological enemies.

        Then one day this libertarian was informed by his doctor (who belongs to a ‘professional association’ not a union) that he was dying of cancer. The unfortunate libertarian went down to the local post office to have his will (self-drafted, damn lawyers) notarized. With his first step upon government property he heard a sound like a trumpet and was bathed in a magnificent blinding light. A thunderous voice echoed in his mind.

        “I do this now so that you will know the true power of collective bargaining!” it said.

        With that, a surge of pain and ecstasy went through him that he had never known before and would never know again. He came to his senses a few minutes later on the cold tile of the lobby, weeping as he had as a child.

        The next day when he returned to the hospital, the doctor confirmed what he already knew; all traces of the cancer were gone from his body.

        You may or may not be surprised to hear that my acquaintance is still a libertarian. If anything his hatred of unions, the government and collective action has only intensified. He was deprived of the choice to die a slow and painful death, market outcomes are always superior to collective bargaining (so imagine how awesome that would have been), and Al Gore is still very, very fat.

        The End

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      • Well, when Ronald Reagan and I were drinking in the local titty-bar last night, he slapped me on the back and told me that he and Nancy were thinking of joining a local union because nothing could be more American than the happy sense of a job well done among good, hard-working people. We then discussed cold fusion, the evolution of the platypus, and phrasal verbs.

        Anyone else have more anecdotes to clog up the thread with?

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    • Whoa, you need to take it easy.

      First of all, yes, the USPS is a notorious example of OOC unionization. Secondly, it is self-sufficient organization and as such does not depend on taxpayer dollars. So whatever issues it creates are its own problem, not the taxpayers’ (generally speaking).

      I am a Democrat, I’ve had experience with unions and I do not hate them. In my profession, the performers’ unions like AFTRA, SAG and Equity are pretty indispensable unless you want to be taken advantage of (AFTRA is less popular because it doesn’t provide the actual physical protections and safeguards that SAG and Equity do–plus they really blew the last strike). Then there are the “tech” unions, like IATSE, which are more like your thuggish Teamster stereotypes, with enforced “minimums” on number of stagehands, etc. But again, a theater is a remarkably hazardous place to work and it’s amazing what unscrupulous (or desperate) producer and theater owners will ask people to do.

      Finally, nobody here is an “evil liar.” Get a grip. USPS is not the same as the teachers’ union, or other public employee unions. There are differences in how effective and worthwhile they can be.

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  8. Oops, got sidetracked: The point about government employees being morally superior is that they would have to be, to overcome the veritable hurricane of perverse incentives. But in fact, the perverse incentives are exactly what attracted them, and what they stay for.

    The invulnerability to firing for incompetence would protect somebody who wanted to do an extra-specially good job, but anybody who had a nutty idea like that would learn better pretty damn quick. Unions don’t like people who do a good job. They don’t like nonconformists.

    The union is a vastly more powerful force for corruption than any political pressure from outside.

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  9. Erik: “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. ”

    Oh, I think that they do. They looooooooove the idea of powerful interests being able to shape government policies even more than they do.

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  10. 16 jeff:

    “This is exactly bass ackwards. It’s the public service unions behaving as if funds are infinite. ”

    Which is a provable lie; the WI unions are will to bargain on costs.

    “(Have you not seen the “tax the rich more” etc. signs being waved around Wisconsin?) ”

    Considering that our 30 year scheme of ‘give the rich anything that they want’ plan has trashed the country, it’s clearly time to tax the living sh*t out of the rich.

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  11. As a less than keen observer, taxpayer, former United Steel Worker union member, it appears to me that the ‘public’ collective bargaining advocates are shocked that for the first time in the last five decades or so elected officials (GOP usually) are telling them the party’s over, you can no longer strong arm cowardly politicans into submission.
    The tax payers are pissed, they see themselves as bled dry, and though at one time sympathetic with the bros and cisterns, now see these union gun-thugs as greedy and lazy, social parasites.
    Policemen on strike!
    Firemen on strike!
    Teachers on strike!
    Are you people nuts?
    The governor should follow Ronaldo Magnus. Give them two days to get back to work with the understanding their wages and bennies are going to be cut and they will have no collective bargaining ‘rights’. If they don’t return to work, or they’ve taken time off that they weren’t entitled to, to attend the protests, fire them enmasse. You’ll be surprised how easy it’ll be to fill those jobs in Barry’s collapsing economy.
    As Maggie said, the problem with socialism becomes apparent, even to a commie-Democrat, when you run outta other people’s money. Welcome to reality my fellow ‘union’ members.

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    • it appears to me that the ‘public’ collective bargaining advocates are shocked that for the first time in the last five decades or so elected officials (GOP usually) are telling them the party’s over

      How perfect. The GOP spends decades gutting the middle class, draining the treasury, giving oceans of money to the rich, and now their solution is to rail against the “greedy” public workers who “caused” these problems. Its a fantastic business model:

      1) Cause a problem
      2) Blame others for it
      3) Use the blame to cause more problems
      4) Profit!

      The tax payers are pissed, they see themselves as bled dry, and though at one time sympathetic with the bros and cisterns, now see these union gun-thugs as greedy and lazy, social parasites.

      Except that all the evidence points to the opposite conclusion. Despite the poll inversions on Fox News, the majority of the country supports collective bargaining rights for public workers, and the majority of WI citizens aren’t too keen on the governor or his proposed solutions.

      Welcome to reality my fellow ‘union’ members.

      Ah yes, the “reality” where everyone but the rich get to wallow in the muck. They’ve destroyed the private sector, so its only “fair” that the public sector be destroyed to match. Beautiful.

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  12. thirded that this is an outstanding post with incredible comments. But with respect to “asdf” and his feverish hatred of the USPS. Last I checked those unionized folks who work at the place where “NOBODY cares about the actual results” can take $0.44 from me and deliver a piece of paper ANYWHERE IN THE UNITED STATES. Full disclosure: I googled the price of a stamp because I usually just give the nice (albeit possibly lazy?) people who work the counter my debit card and they give me a book of stickers with pretty pictures. But anyway. Go WI public workers.

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    • I will defend asdf on the narrow point of featherbedding and slow walking in the usps. It is outrageous that the culture of the usps will not allow an ambitious person to excel. This culture is pervasive as any honest postal employee will tell you, but this says nothing, nothing about any other union or the case in question

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