July 28, 2011

Productivity Isn't in the Union Interest

Justin Katz

The budget battle has come and gone, but one section of an op-ed that Independent state Senator Ed O'Neil published in May is worth considering:

George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, has said publicly that we should give our state workers a chance to improve productivity. They know best how to get the job done. I agree with Mr. Nee on this point.

Operational excellence is a natural outcome of people working as a team. Everyone needs an oar in the water to get our costs down. A new day has dawned, and Rhode Islanders are beginning to realize that we need to work together to get our state operations lean. That means better thinking, better systems, better tools, and better leadership.

Employees may "know best" how their workplace functions, but it isn't in their interest to be more efficient. In the business world, employees at least know that increases in their pay require expansion of their employers' revenue or dollars freed up through productivity. They also know that their jobs are at risk if the financial reality goes the other way.

In the government world, increases in pay are tied to political leverage. It doesn't have to be that way; super-productive workers could lead to low-cost government that satisfies more recipients of government services while not causing excessive pain to taxpayers, thus accruing credit to elected officials, but decades of maneuvering by bureaucratic administrators and labor unions have left us in an untenable position.

Citizens are paying so much, often for services that they don't want, that a correction is necessary. Therefore, employees would be far down the line in profiting from the efficiencies that increased productivity would create — after decreasing debt and eliminating deficits and after decreasing the cost of government to residents. Organized union entities have even more reason to undermine efficiency: An employee might stand to profit if his or her high efficiency eliminates the need for the public to hire additional workers, but the union to which he or she belongs would stand to lose dues and political clout.

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The most defining characteristic of government work, in my personal experience, is the lack of any incentives to push yourself or save money. Why would a manager ever fire someone? It will just become a huge headache once the grievances and the lawsuits start. Why point out waste? It will just make somebody angry at you for making them look bad or take on new duties. The new gimmick is the SAVE award. The top savings idea out of tens of thousands gets to meet Obama, the rest get ignored - well, super...

I've been told by the old-time union members in our agency to slow down and make the work last more than once. When I proposed an idea to automate a service, they objected that people would be out of a job. This has been the mentality for the past 40 years. Only now with declining union membership and fresh new talent coming in are things beginning to change.

Posted by: Dan at July 28, 2011 2:24 PM

Justin and Dan,
Well here goes...wait for it...I agree with you. For the most part. Unions frequently meddle in areas that should be better left for management. You always get the old-timers who resist change in any way, shape or form. You always get the malcontents who view my job as nothing more than a paycheck and will do the absolute minimum, whine and complain if more is expected, and poison the workplace for others. These people enjoy as much protection from the union as I do.
I don't want to bash other unions but...I see more of what your talking about coming from the municipal workers. Three guys taking all day to do a job when it should have been done by one guy in half a day. It's frustrating to watch.
Justin you mention services people are paying for but don't want. Which services? I see the biggest waste of time, money and resources being people demanding services they shouldn't get. In my line of work,the "nothing happened but I want it documented anyways" type of jobs. If you've read Michael's blog we see first hand the incredible abuses that are allowed to go on with the men and resources of the PFD Rescue. Rescue runs from one end of RI Hospital to the other? Seriously? If our elected officials had any balls they'd end that stuff tomorrow.
I suppose you could privatize any public service, I don't think the result would be what people are envisioning though.

Posted by: seirra1 at July 28, 2011 3:07 PM

I don't disagree that the incentives are preverse, but I think the problem lies in the nature of the labor-management relationship. This relationship as it exists now has grown out of an adversarial arrangement in which management - even and especially in the public sector - gave virtually no consideration to workers in decision making. Just as owners used the state to protect their interests, labor uses the state to protect its own interests. If management decisions were regularly made in cooperation with workers, rather than in conflict with them, we might not need big unions with big political influence. However, unless and until labor has a guaranteed place at the table in both the public and private sectors, unions will play an absolutely essential role in protecting political equality.

Posted by: Ron at July 28, 2011 4:08 PM

To what sierra was saying about the municipal workers, I know someone who worked at the state house and times when I would visit, there would always be this same guy sitting at a desk, reading a paper. I'd ask "what's his job" and no one knew. They also had what they referred to as "hall walkers". People you always see roaming the building but don't really do much. Usually patronage jobs with someone. Add on top of that there are positions that are extremely busy for parts of the year and completely unnecessary for other parts of the year. Lots of waste.

Posted by: Patrick at July 28, 2011 4:40 PM

I really have no problem with unions as long as they are voluntary and don't enjoy all sorts of corrupt rights and privileges based solely on their union status. How could anyone argue with a free association of individuals choosing to bargain together? Certainly I could not. Competition and free choice are the key, hence the importance of right to work legislation. Federal unions and unions in right to work states don't enjoy the corrupting statutory monopoly status that unions in forced-union states like Rhode Island have in their pocket. When a union goes sour in a right to work environment, people simply stop paying membership dues and the union is forced to change or go bankrupt. It's the natural check on the union leadership, so of course the union leaders conspire with politicians at every turn to prevent it, knowing that they can't compete with more effective representation like attorneys, agents, or even the harder-working employees themselves. If you want to see the profound effect of right to work, you only need compare a map of right to work states with a map of debt per capita. There is a noticeable difference in the "soft factors" between these environments as well, such as friendliness and the lack of entitlement attitudes.

Posted by: Dan at July 28, 2011 7:46 PM

I doubt Ralph Mollis ran his recent genius hire past AFCSME before making it.

Posted by: bella at July 28, 2011 10:08 PM

Just one more in a long list of typical union liars that try to sound reasonable, yet know that what they are saying is complete BS.
More likely this is the role unions will continue to play: A friend of mine got a job with the state a few years ago. Having come from the private sector, he had a different worldview of what it meant to work.
In the first week, after coming in early, leaving late, even - heaven forbid - working while eating his lunch, he was called upon to end this despicable behavior by the union head. He was making others look bad!
If anybody today still thinks that the unions will ever be a part of fixing anything, they are severely mentally challenged.

Posted by: Mike Cappelli at July 29, 2011 9:14 AM
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