FDR was mostly right

FDR apparently concluded that the city, county and village legislators, state legislatures or Congress should set wages and benefits for public employees and that while the public sector employees should be free to join unions their involvement in negotiations with their government employers made no sense.

After 40-plus years working with public unions I’ve come to the conclusion that FDR was mostly right. The situation in Mt. Mason is typical of the teacher and public employee negotiations that distract us from the critical task of making our public institutions more responsive and effective while wasting enormous amounts of precious leadership time and public tax dollars on local negotiations.

Frequently, these negotiations in the strong public union states pit David, played by the local public employer, against Goliath, played by the local public union and its state level partner. And it’s not just the teachers union, it’s the bus drivers’ union, the administrators, the support staff union.

As a result of laws and court decisions, public union employees are guaranteed annual raises based on seniority steps, continuing high cost health insurance sans teacher contributions and high employer contributions to state controlled pension plans.

When a school district sits down at the table, they’re fighting an uphill battle against a well-funded state level opponent.

These guarantees produced by laws and supporting court decisions apply to state, local government and school district employees in strong public union states. Public unions in these states gained an unfair advantage through campaign contributions and endorsements provided to members of both Democratic and Republican parties.

The public unions received paybacks in the form of a ratcheting up of negotiations advantages over the decades of the 1960s through the 1990s. In New York State, Democrats received the majority of this largesse, but the Republicans took their share as well. The union contributed millions to their campaigns and continue to contribute to this day.

To make these negotiation contests less lopsided school districts, towns, villages and cities try to arm themselves with the best slingshots available (expensive labor attorneys) who have developed an extremely well-funded cottage industry that grows into a more expensive and debilitating barnacle on public school district ship every year.

While private worker union influence has shrunk over the past five decades due to the impact of globalization and technology, public unions have become even more pernicious, particularly in states that made strategic errors by passing laws that tilted negotiations toward unions.

Public employee unions gained negotiating power primarily in blue states like New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and California. States like Ohio and Wisconsin, where Republicans have taken over control, have tried to create a more equitable balance. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2016, short one member due to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, tied 4-4 on a crucial case that could have negative impacts on public union finances. But entrenched power seldom slinks away quietly, especially when serious money is on the table.

In Albany, NY, where I served as a school superintendent for six years, extended and acrimonious negotiations with our teachers’ union, our support staff union and our school administrators’ union included several incidents that illustrated the bitterness that can come from these public union conflicts.

• My mailbox was destroyed by early morning explosions on three separate occasions during negotiations.

• Someone banged on my door at 2 a.m. waking and frightening my teenage daughter and my ex-wife while I was working at an extended night time negotiations session with the teachers’ union.

• My car was “parked in” by a vehicle belonging to one of the district’s teachers who parked his car one inch from my vehicle in an attempt to make it impossible for me to drive home after a negotiating session that didn’t end until 4 a.m. (It took me an hour but I got out of the spot.)

• At the height of the same negotiations a disgruntled and ineffective payroll employee who was also a member of the support staff union leadership was involved in several conflicts in the office and had repeatedly been uncooperative with her supervisor. This employee was transferred to a different job in a different building at the same rate of pay. I had investigated the possibility of terminating this employee, but the school district’s attorney told us that given her union leadership status firing her would probably result in a reinstatement by the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) that oversees challenges on such issues.

The day she left for her new work assignment the entire payroll file for our district was deleted from our computer system. This delayed paychecks for 1,200 employees and required several employees to work overtime on the weekend to hand write checks for the impacted employees who received their paychecks one to three days late.

Despite the fact that we could trace the payroll file deletion back to the specific computer used by this employee our attorney strongly advised us not to take further disciplinary action against her due to her union leadership status and PERB rules and decisions regarding union animus (retaliatory actions by public employers toward public union leaders).

“Permanent status,” which is like tenure for nonteaching employees, also can protect bad behavior, illegal acts and just plain poor performance, particularly for union leaders because they will claim union animus.

• A confidential negotiations document I had given to the school board describing my plan to begin to replace the existing high school educated teacher aide staff with lower paid and more highly qualified teacher assistants with teaching certification or at least a bachelor’s degree through attrition was pilfered from my desk and altered to say my plan was to immediately lay off all these employees (over 100).

The altered version (I had no plans to lay off anyone during this process.) was distributed to all the members of the district’s support staff union. Imagine my surprise when over 150 members of this union showed up at our next school board meeting with no warning.

These employees, who attended the meeting as a result of theft and deception, were armed with picket signs calling for my firing and they chanted repeatedly “Palmer must go” for the benefit of the television and newspaper reporters they had called in advance of the meeting.

• During the acrimonious negotiations with our support staff union I visited one of the district’s elementary schools to check on the progress of summer cleaning and maintenance work. When I returned to my car I found I had a flat tire. I pulled into the adjacent gas station and asked them to fix the tire while I grabbed lunch in the diner across the street.

When I returned from lunch the mechanic said, “Well, I can fix the two holes in the tire tread but the 14 holes in the sidewall are another matter. You’ll need a new tire.”

• When I was the interim superintendent in Troy, NY, I made decisions that reduced unnecessary overtime for custodians. Several of those custodians were making more in yearly wages than my newer school principals due to “boiler” time where they “watched” the steam boilers in the high school and the middle school at night, supposedly for safety reasons. No safety issues had ever been noted during these overtime shifts and I had previously worked in other school districts with steam boilers like those in Troy that did not pay overtime for steam boiler supervision.

Shortly after I ended “boiler babysitting” a bullet hole mysteriously appeared in a window in my office, the air conditioning in my office did not work and wasn’t fixed for several months (this resulted in severe allergies I struggle with to this day) and a key supervisory custodial employee took a leave of absence of more than one year in duration for an unspecified illness creating significant operational issues for the district and for me.

I don’t need to be convinced that public unions are a menace, but I had to put aside my distaste for public unions and find a way to work out the contracts that had expired in Mt. Mason. Fortunately, I knew where to find the money needed to resolve these long standing disputes given my experience in the intricacies of teacher salary and benefit costs.

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