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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Union grievance filed over firefighters' sandbagging during floods

We have a new definition for the phrase "bad idea":

Volunteer firefighters who built sandbag barricades to protect Baraboo from record flooding earlier this month wrongfully did the work of city workers, a union representative argues in a complaint.

A grievance filed with the city says Department of Public Works employees are qualified to perform the work done by volunteer firefighters and should've been called on first.

Union workers are demanding pay for overtime they lost out on as a result of volunteers from the Baraboo Fire Department filling sandbags June 7 through June 12. They are arguing the city violated their union contract.
The union is throwing its weight around over people helping other people protect their homes during a flood. The union wants its members paid overtime for work they didn't do.

I want to make sure that we see the union's perspective: the fire department was called out, and did work that is (I assume) in the job description of the city workers.

In other words, the firefighters and a bunch of unpaid volunteers were doing the city workers' job, when the city workers themselves hadn't been called out to do that job.

The problem here isn't that city workers want to get paid for working during an emergency. Cops, firefighters, EMS, National Guardsmen were getting paid. Do we begrudge them that? I doubt it.

But then, regular folk don't have the training, equipment, discipline and organization those groups have, and thus aren't as qualified to be doing many of the things those groups were doing.

Almost anybody can sandbag.

Of course, regular folk have the sense to realize that, when the river is overflowing its banks and whole towns are underwater, it doesn't much matter who's doing the work. It matters that the work is being done.

I have little doubt that, in a purely legalistic sense, the union has a legitimate point. The city probably should have made sure, if the city guys are contractually entitled to that work, that the city guys were doing that work before any other city employees were called in to do it.

However, considering the immediacy and chaos of the day, I'd have been stunned if such t-crossing and i-dotting was actually going on.

The problem is twofold: first, the unimaginably bad public relations blunder. I mean, what monumentally bad timing. What a monumentally bad decision, to file a grievance over sandbagging during an emergency of that magnitude.

It's like getting your hot fudge sundae and thinking: this needs more sauerkraut. That kind of bad decision. Hey, let's give T.J. Rubley another shot. That kind of bad decision. Leaving me alone all day with my wife's chocolate cake bad. Electing Barack Obama bad.

Second, this illustrates the problem with public employee unions: they have a monopoly, not just on the labor force, but on the work. Nobody else is allowed to do the work the union members do. Only the union can supply people to do that work.

This doesn’t happen in the private sector: even in jobs that are largely unionized, there is often competition among union shops, and there are often non-union competitors. Unions only have a partial monopoly on the labor force, and no monopoly on the work itself.

But in the public sector, they've got a monopoly on both. So: even if the city is able to find a less expensive way to get a job done, they won't be allowed to. They must go through the union.

But that's an argument we should be having another day. That we're having it because the union's mad that somebody else was filling and stacking sandbags to protect people's homes only serves to show just how tunnel-visioned and narrow-minded this particular union is.

Or, hopefully, just the union rep.