Public Employees, Service, and More on the Snow Storm

“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'” – Matt 20:25-28

Last February it snowed over three feet here in Columbia, MD. The day of the blizzard, my wife went into labor with our third child. Our street had not been plowed, and while I do own a four-wheel-drive vehicle it was no match for the massive snowfall. When it was clear that we needed to get to the hospital, we called 911. They dispatched a plow truck to our street (the only street in the neighborhood to get plowed for several days), along with four EMT workers followed by an ambulance. They got us out and to the hospital in plenty of time. It was a great job by the entire system, and greatly appreciated.

When the snow storm kerfuffle hit New York City this weekend, my wife commented that it seemed out of place. Columbia, MD handled 38 inches, how can New York City get swamped by half as much? Odd indeed.

The story just keeps getting stranger. There now are “snitches” out there claiming that they, along with other public sanitation workers, were instructed to drag their feet on the snow removal. Don’t clear very fast; keep blades higher off the ground so you have to re-plow, skip streets that weren’t expressly on your list, and generally suck at what you’re doing. This appears to be a salvo in an ongoing budget dispute.

The mayor and the city council have had to make serious budget cuts in the face of the Great Recession (haven’t we all?). The public employees unions are non-to-pleased about having to feel some of the pain themselves and are stridently refusing to make concessions on contracts. Now they’re refusing to do the jobs that they are paid for in hopes of exacting punishment on … well, on who exactly? Who is it that suffers here? It takes about two seconds to figure that out. The public has paid for services; the people paid to perform those services have refused because they want different goodies in the contract; the public is left without services after having already paid for them. If any of these stories can be confirmed, then these guys ought to go to jail.

This is not the first instance, and it will not be the last. In Greece and other European countries, public employees are rioting to prevent austerity measures greatly needed to prevent countries from going under. In England students are rioting because they may have to pay for some of their own college education. It’s getting ugly across the pond.

Over here, things have not gotten as bad as quickly, but we’re seeing glimpses. Police unions are making commercials insinuating that public safety is tied to lavish benefits. Are we paying protection money now? Waste removal crews in New York are playing games with public safety to try to gain leverage in contract negotiations. (Reports indicate that a baby actually died because the ambulances couldn’t or didn’t get there for hours … try sleeping with that on your conscience guys.) What’s next? I bet it won’t get better before it gets worse.

We’ve noted in the past that public unions are a tricky prospect. I fully support the right to organize for collective bargaining in the private sector. That is free association. A group of skilled laborers is organizing to negotiate a better share of the profits with business owners and capital suppliers. Well done guys. “Do your job and demand your compensation – but in that order” – Cary Grant.

Collective bargaining with the public is a different matter.There are no profits to be discussed. There is only a consideration of what portion of other people’s productive labors can you confiscate in order to perform your services. Obviously some payment is necessary. But if you’re in the business to demand higher pay, then you ought to take your skills to the private labor market and see what they’re really worth. For that matter, government ought to be in the business of providing the services for the least amount of cost, not providing lavish pay and benefits packages as vote-getting bribes.

These unions are behaving poorly, and ultimately not in their best interests. The American people are waking up. We are not interested in being held hostage. Municipalities will end up defaulting or declaring bankruptcy. States will be forced to outsource all services to close budget gaps. The unions with their high pay will be squeezed out of the market – it’s that, or full on state-run socialism; something Americans are not ready to swallow (and hopefully never will be).

If these unions would take some modest modifications to their pay and benefits, they could keep the gig going for quite some time longer. Americans really are a forgiving lot if parties will just show some willingness to work through it.

If you find yourself in one of these settings tonight, remember that the Christians are called to a higher standard, and are called to love a different Master. We cannot serve God and wealth – we must choose, and only one of them is eternal. So please don’t go along with plans to defraud the public for the sake of better wealth – that is service to the wrong god. Rather, let your conduct be known to all, that you will not sacrifice integrity for the sake of money.

It’s still OK to demand compensation for your labor; absolutely it is. But holding your neighbors hostage to demand more money is deplorable. It’s reminiscent of firefighters who refuse to put out flames until owners have paid exorbitant fees on the spot (a common practice in ancient Rome). So it is with sanitation workers who refuse to do their own jobs in a spat with the public over pay.

Mayor Bloomberg, I’ve had some not-nice things to say about you in the past. Right now you should fire them all, and arrest the conspirators. (Surely there is a charge of manslaughter in there somewhere.) Do that, and the entire country will stand and salute you. The throw for power is upon you, it is upon us all. If they can get away with this, what’s next?

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