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Public unions need to stop defending the bad apples

Unsuck DC Metro uncovered some troubling facts about the way WMATA's union rules may be encouraging poor escalator performance.


Photo by @mjb on Flickr.

A "pick" system lets escalator mechanics bid on escalators to maintain, with preference by seniority. As a result, some senior mechanics may choose escalators in good working order "so they can slide and and not do anything for the six months it's under their 'care,'" as Unsuck put it. When the escalator starts having problems, they can simply pick different escalators.

This system also reduces incentives for more capable mechanics without high seniority to do a good job, since bringing an escalator up to tip top shape will only entice the more senior mechanics to bid to take it away.

Most likely only a few "bad apples" actually slack off so seriously. Most mechanics at Metro probably try to do the best job they can day after day. But at Metro, like in many public agencies, even a small minority of poor employees gives the entire agency a bad reputation, and union rules make it remarkably difficult to fire them.

Union rules also form one of the biggest obstacles, if not the biggest, to removing poorly performing project managers and engineers in DDOT's engineering department, IPMA, as I recommended. The standard way of laying off people, a Reduction In Force (RIF), requires laying off the newest employees, who are often not the ones that are most problematic.

Terminating individuals for cause takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. DDOT actually did go through some substantial staff cuts and used many tools at its disposal to target the cuts to poor employees rather than just young employees, but in a number of cases they had to take some employees back and pay them years of back salary, further draining limited budgets.

And as we all know, the WTU just elected a new president who ran on a platform of opposing the IMPACT teacher ratings and the contract provisions to fire poorly performing teachers. IMPACT might be imperfect, but overall the new contract got rid of the worst performing teachers. That's exactly what needs to happen.

Before we all go calling for the elimination of unions, let me emphasize that I believe unions have an important role. The labor market is not fair and doesn't work on its own. In most economic times, there are more people who want jobs than there are jobs, and that means the equilibrium price for labor in most industries will be the bare subsistence level. That's not good for society.

Unions like SEIU have worked hard to get health care and decent pay for workers in many fields who would otherwise be dependent on emergency room care, which is far more expensive to society. Companies have far more "market power" in the labor market than individuals do, due to the way individuals have few choices and companies can always hire someone else.

However, many unions, especially public employee unions, also fall into the unfortunate position of fighting against the firing of bad workers. This is not in the best interest of the labor movement generally, since it undermines political support for organized labor and doesn't actually improve the lot of most workers, But individual unions or workers aren't focused on that. In at least one recent case, the ATU leadership didn't want to appeal the firing of one WMATA employee whose infractions had made the press and garnered significant scorn, but the rank and file overrode the recommendation.

This is the fundamental disconnect. A union officially represents the workers, just like a lawyer represents a client, and is supposed to do everything they can for the workers. But they also have powers granted by the law, such as to collect dues from all employees, which means they enjoy privileges granted by the government. The government should only give power if it serves the public interest. Sometimes having a union does serve the public interest, but in this case of firing bad people it does not.

Is it possible to make firing poorly performing union employees easier without throwing out the whole organized labor system? The new Republican majority in the House would surely be interested in curbing some union excesses, while there are plenty of ways the law still doesn't protect employees trying to organize against retaliation. Could a deal be worked out where layoffs for performance become possible but organizing also becomes more possible?

How could such a layoff work? Off the top of my head, here are some ideas which people surely poke holes in. An agency head could create some ranking, which could include objective criteria (like IMPACT's) and some subjective criteria (like manager ratings), and announce their intention to lay off a specific number of people by taking the bottom of that ranking. However, they also have to identify an equal number from the second lowest group. In other words, if they want to lay off 10% of people by performance, they have to identify the bottom 10% and also the next lowest 10%.

The union can then challenge any of the choices, but they have to also identify which people from the second group they would remove instead, based on any other alternative but not completely arbitrary rating system. The agency can agree, or can go to arbitration to decide which.

For teachers, for example, if WTU thought IMPACT was lousy and it could come up with a better system, it could use that system to replace some of the teachers rated worst by IMPACT with some of the teachers rated not quite so bad but still not tops. Keeping everyone isn't an option, and choosing based on whim isn't either, but there's room to negotiate the criteria.

Or, perhaps there are other ways to fix this problem. Any ideas? Let's try to keep the comments from devolving into a shouting match of "Destroy all unions!" "No, keep all unions exactly the same!" Something is broken, but let's figure out how to fix that one thing instead of pushing for unrealistic and wholesale changes.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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A "pick" system lets escalator mechanics bid on escalators to maintain, with preference by seniority.

Hmm. Interesting. I really don't have anything to add here. Oh, other than that's the stupidest fucking thing I have ever heard. Unions really are their own worst enemy.

Carry on.

by oboe on Dec 3, 2010 1:51 pm • linkreport

Although not perfect, perhaps the union should be able allowed to develop it's own ranking system with the explicit requirement that it not be based on seniority.

by Cullen on Dec 3, 2010 2:18 pm • linkreport

Unions see their job as protecting due process. The problem is often the process by which "bad apples" are labeled as such. Teaching is one class of employment where output is challenging to measure, so identifying underperformers can be tricky. You might want to dedicate a separate post just to IMPACT, which has a lot of details and nuance that are worth discussing.

by Ward 1 Guy on Dec 3, 2010 2:20 pm • linkreport

I don't know as much about unions as I should... are they granted monopolies? Based on the ability to collect dues from all employees, it sounds like a particular union in that case has been given a guaranteed monopoly over employees. What happens if we simply remove the monopoly? Would the union fracture into multiple unions, some of which promote the dismissal of poor performers? Would the reduced power of the single union be balanced by greater efficiency because of new-found competition for dues-paying members?

by Dave M on Dec 3, 2010 2:21 pm • linkreport

@Oboe What's so ridiculous about the pick system? It's used with bus and train routes too, to give people with seniority and experience some "perks." Every workplace I've ever been in has something similar, whether it be being able to pick your shift, from having "first dibs" on that corner office with the sweet view.

Absent offices, why shouldn't the most senior escalator mechanics have some sort of perk, like being able to pick whether they work underground or outside, on fewer long escalators or more short ones?

I agree with David and Mr. Unsuck that the way the system works currently creates certain perverse incentives, but I don't think that it should be abolished wholesale. Do you have any constructive comments, as David asked for?

by Erik Weber on Dec 3, 2010 2:24 pm • linkreport

Cullen: Most unions (particularly teachers unions) have made it clear that they don't think there is a better measure of merit than seniority. I disagree with this position, but I have plenty of experience with other attempts at merit valuation that were not any better or less arbitrary than seniority. Simply agreeing that seniority isn't the best measure doesn't mean all others are better.

by TM on Dec 3, 2010 2:26 pm • linkreport

FDR had it right when he said that it was insane for government employees to be unionized.

But good luck waiting for any DC Council and Mayor to push for union changes. Only hope for that is through the Republicans in Congress.

by Fritz on Dec 3, 2010 2:27 pm • linkreport

Unions are the good the bad and the ugly of most jobs, they stand up for the wrong and do nothing for the right people

by Jerome on Dec 3, 2010 2:33 pm • linkreport

The main problem is that we don't fully recognize that the primary purpose of a public-sector union is to maximize the (economic) interests of its members. When we saw these conflicts in the private sector, as with U.S. Steel and G.M., we correctly saw it as the inevitable tension between two groups, labor and management, each trying to maximize its own interests that conflict with the opposition's interests.

The issue is the same with public employees except that instead of industrial titans on the management end, we have the general public on the management end. While the interests of both labor and the public often coincide--- safety measures usually benefit everyone--- other issues will by necessity pit labor against the public.

Quality services require hard work and accountability on the part of the service provide; when a private provide does shoddy work, customers can and will cease doing business with them. A government body provides no such choice as paying taxes is compulstory

Government and quasi-government agencies are fundamentally different from private companies such as G.M. and U.S. Steel in that the government must serve the best interests of the general public whereas a private company must serve, within the bounds of the law, its shareholders.

by Eric Fidler on Dec 3, 2010 2:34 pm • linkreport

I would agree that perhaps unions have a limited role in the private sector but there is a legitimate argument that there is no need in the public sector. There tend to be enough rules and regulations, civil service, etc. to protect employees in the public sector. There are now more unionized employees in the public sector than in the private sector. This has led to higher taxes, inefficient government, and a sense of entitlement by many government employees. Many government jobs are like winning the lottery. A lifetime of salary and no worry about doing a good job no matter how badly you screw up or how little work you do.

by Jane on Dec 3, 2010 2:41 pm • linkreport

I find the sentiment if WTU thought IMPACT was lousy and it could come up with a better system to be a remarkably glib way to consider the question of teacher quality and evaluation. This presumes that an "objective" teacher evaluation system is possible. IMPACT is highly quantified, but quantifiability does not mean objectivity.

For all the teachers for which data exist in order to carry out the calculations, half of the IMPACT scores are based on what's known as "Value Added Modeling," (VAM) which purports to separate a teacher's contribution to a student's test score gains from all the other factors that might influence a student's test score gains. Exactly how does the IMPACT VAM work? We don't know, except that it uses a "sophisticated statistical model."

An analysis of VAM methods from the NBER found a case where student's fifth grade teachers predicted their fourth grade test scores, clearly demonstrating that, in this case, the VAM wasn't doing at all what it said it was. The educational gains of a fourth grade student should not depend at all on the teacher said student has for the fifth grade. The score that the VAM claimed was attributable only to the teacher was, in fact, influenced by other factors.

Does IMPACT use the same VAM? I don't know. WTU doesn't know. Only the consultants to run the scores through the VAM model for the IMPACT program know. But I think there's a good chance that all VAM methods are susceptible to the same types of faults, and I think it's well within the realm of possibility for the sort of analysis that VAMs try to do to just be impossible. (Sort of in the same way that increasingly sophisticated macroeconomic models haven't actually produced more accurate macroeconomic forecasts.)

So does the WTU have a reason to object to an evaluation system where half of the score might well consist of GIGO-ridden noise? The Economic Policy Institute seems to think so.

More broadly, there is a substantial body of research that establishes that teacher quality is the most important in school factor for student achievement. This type of information is useful in making decisions about, say, the relative benefit of using poorer-quality teachers to lower class size. But as a fraction of all the factors that go into student achievement, teacher quality is only something like 20%. There is a dangerous elision, when the "in school" qualifier is left out, that turns what needs to be a broad picture of the factors influencing student achievement into a discussion that's all about the teachers.

by thm on Dec 3, 2010 2:50 pm • linkreport

Absent offices, why shouldn't the most senior escalator mechanics have some sort of perk, like being able to pick whether they work underground or outside, on fewer long escalators or more short ones?
David largely answered this question already: this particular perk misappropriates the best skills and labor to areas where it is least needed. Pay should be based on market rates that will likely reflect the following: the harder or more strenuous escalator repair positions should receive higher pay. Within a job category, pay should match the risk and difficulty of the individual assignment.

by Eric Fidler on Dec 3, 2010 2:50 pm • linkreport

There's another key difference between public- and private-sector unions. Private sector unions have only the power of their contract negotiations. Public unions have double power because they also have strong political power, meaning they play a role in picking the people they negotiate with.

by Richard on Dec 3, 2010 2:54 pm • linkreport

@Eric:

What's so ridiculous about the pick system? It's used with bus and train routes too, to give people with seniority and experience some "perks." Every workplace I've ever been in has something similar, whether it be being able to pick your shift, from having "first dibs" on that corner office with the sweet view.

Seriously, the problems seem so obvious to me that I can't tell whether you're on the level or not. What's the problem with allowing the senior Metro mechanics to beg off working on the most problematic escalators? Seriously?

This isn't a question of perks--of being able to choose the nicest locker. Or by your example, the first pick of office. If you're, say, a senior software architect at a company, you may get a nicer desk than the newbies, but you're sure as Hell not going to be given the option of taking a "pass" at the thornier problems that come up.

Sorry, that just seemed so obvious to me it didn't need elaboration. I suppose there's the possibility that escalator repair is an absolute zero-skill job, and that experience counts for nothing when it comes to practical ability to solve the problem, but if not, again, the "pick" system is fucking imbicilic.

And this comes from someone who is predisposed to support unions.

by oboe on Dec 3, 2010 2:55 pm • linkreport

This is a thought-provoking post. The "pick" system certainly does seem to create perverse incentives for the escalator mechanics. And I agree that unions play an important role in workplaces and in society, but that they also sometimes perpetuate the status quo even when it's bad.

An interesting approach might be to consider the union's incentives. Unions stress solidarity, and sometimes they seriously distrust management. So when management wants to fire or discipline a poorly-performing worker, even aside from the union's legal purpose to represent the worker, there may be a sense that "we need to stick together" and that "management is trying to screw us". There are few incentives not to fight for a worker: only the time/effort of the defense, the risk of bad press, and the general risk of harming the employer in a way that ultimately harms the workers. Those are pretty diffuse and not too compelling. On the other hand, if you don't stick up for a worker you can look like you're complicit with management, and weaken other workers' faith that the union would be there to protect them if they were screwed over.

Maybe there is a parallel to ANCs, who only have the power to say "no" and no incentive to say yes. Could unions agree not to vigorously defend a known bad apple in exchange for gains that would benefit the remaining workers? I think it'd be a tough call -- as Ward 1 Guy said, unions see their job as protecting due process. Even with incentives, it would be hard to convince a union not to fight for what they see as fair treatment, even for workers who really were slack.

by Gavin on Dec 3, 2010 2:59 pm • linkreport

@Richard, actually many private unions own considerable stock in the company that employs them, so they have pressure as shareholders too. They also have recourse to the court of public opinion. So it's not so entirely incomparable to democratic power as voters, activists, lobbyists, donors, etc.

by Gavin on Dec 3, 2010 3:06 pm • linkreport

@ Erik Weber: I really don't care HOW the pick system works - it's idiotic. Regardless of who "gets" what escalator, the bigger issue here is that technicians "slide and and not do anything for the six months." That's freakin' insane. Despite the fact that maintenance of escalators is a continuing problem with Metro, escalator techs are sitting around doing nothing because "their" escalators are "in good working order?" I don't care if it's the most senior tech or the guy hired yesterday - NO ONE should be sitting around doing nothing! Let them help with other escalators, for cryin' out loud.

by dcd on Dec 3, 2010 3:07 pm • linkreport

I saw a stat earlier this year, don't remember the source, that public employees make up 51% of all union members in America.

by Q on Dec 3, 2010 3:16 pm • linkreport

Keep the pick system, but put an adjustable pay grade in that would reward keeping troublesome escalators running.

You've got to align incentives. The problem with WMATA is the series of incentives they have aren't ones that customers want or care about. Definition of "on time" train for instance -- rather loose when you want one and people complain about being a sardine on rush hour.

I agree unions tend to be confrontational. You've got to have pride in your work. Most union guys I know realize that, but how often is management often concerned about a broken escalator...

by charlie on Dec 3, 2010 3:23 pm • linkreport

Regardless of who "gets" what escalator, the bigger issue here is that technicians "slide and and not do anything for the six months."

I read this on the other blog and thought this particular part of the discussion ridiculous. Unsuck's blog, attributed that quote to an anonymous "insider." Naturally, anyone reading this would believe that the technicians "do nothing" for six months. But is this true? Do these guys really get paid to do nothing for six months? Literally nothing? That doesn't sound believable.

It is all too common for seniored employees not to do the grunt work. Does the executive assistant perform the same level of grunt work that his/her admin assistant does? Of course not.

I don't work for Metro nor am I a member of a union, but if I were a competent 25yr technician, I would only hope that my years of service would grant me SOMETHING. If that happened to be the pick system, then so be it.

On another note, any thoughts about how long Unsuck's "source" has worked at metro? Can't imagine a vet complaining.

by HogWash on Dec 3, 2010 3:27 pm • linkreport

I know David asked us to solve this one problem, rather than saying "Destroy all unions" or something like that. But unfortunately, this problem seems to be endemic to unions. Every union I've ever seen pushes for using seniority rather than productivity as the basis for salaries, layoffs, allocation of tasks, etc. And in most cases, they still stick to that approach even when offered tremendous amounts of money in return for giving it up. Maybe there's some solution I don't see, but in my experience, the only way to solve this kind of problem is to get rid of (or drastically weaken) the union.

by Rob on Dec 3, 2010 3:30 pm • linkreport

fwiw, the pick system creates similar dynamics for bus routes. The most experienced, calmest bus operators pick the milk-run routes and times, leaving the newest, youngest, and least experienced operators for the routes with most traffic, most disruptive clientele, etc.

by jnb on Dec 3, 2010 3:41 pm • linkreport

As I think about this I wonder if maybe union rank and file need an incentive to care about others' performance. For example, if all mechanics got a bonus if escalator reliability exceeded a target. Then if someone is slacking, people would have an incentive to push him or her to do better or let management fire him or her. I can see a number of specific implentation challenges of course.

by David Alpert on Dec 3, 2010 3:47 pm • linkreport

BTW, in many cities, as teachers gain more seniority they get to transfer into schools in "nice neighborhoods", i.e. with fewer poor kids. Pretty obvious how that can undermine the public good in an analogous way as the pick system might assign the best mechanics to the easy-to-fix escalators.

I agree with commenters who said management just needs to align incentives better.

by Ward 1 Guy on Dec 3, 2010 3:58 pm • linkreport

@David,

Agree, it's about arranging the proper set of incentives. I think they have a similar incentive structure in the USMC, where the slacker gets held down in their bunk, and beaten with socks filled with bars of soap.

Not the sort of thing you can write into a contract, though.

by oboe on Dec 3, 2010 4:17 pm • linkreport

Public unions need to stop defending the bad apples

Do you also think lawyers should stop defending guilty people? The union's job is to enforce the contract negotiated with WMATA. The contract includes certain job protections. If WMATA thinks fewer job protections would serve them better, then they should negotiate for that, and offer some substitute compensation instead. DCPS wound up only offering performance bonuses to teachers who give up some tenure protection.

Having department-wide incentives would be a good place to start. Performance bonuses for the number of in-service escalators is worth looking at, as long as it doesn't wind up encouraging corner-cutting and decreasing safety.

by jcm on Dec 3, 2010 4:17 pm • linkreport

@Hogwash: "but if I were a competent 25yr technician, I would only hope that my years of service would grant me SOMETHING."

I expect the 25 year vets are paid significantly more than the newbies. I don't think it's too much to expect that in return for that additional compensation, (1) they perform roughly the same amount of work as the new employees, and (2) as someone else said, they be expected to take on the thornier problems.

Regarding the executive assistant v. junior assistant: in my office at least, if there is a backlog of "grunt work" to be done, you're darn tootin' that the executive assistant would pitch in. And protests that said executive assistant occupies too lofty a position to perform grunt work would not be well received.

by dcd on Dec 3, 2010 4:26 pm • linkreport

Also, I want to put in a good word for a really interesting organization in Silver Spring called the Transportation Learning Center (www.trasnportcenter.org). This is an organization whose Board consists of former transportation agency leaders and labor leaders, and its mission is to try to make headway in these areas.

It would be a great thing if Metro or other organizations were able to bring them in to broker resolutions to situations like what's being discussed, but both sides need to be inclined to collaborate.

p.s. I'm not affiliated with this organization other than I attended their conference last year, which was outstanding (next one in February 2011 in Silver Spring).

by jnb on Dec 3, 2010 4:45 pm • linkreport

@DCD, considering this whole discussion is based on an anonymous source, do any of us have an idea all of what goes into a techicians job? If they choose the "good" projects, does that mean that they do no other work? How many techs are there? Of the 275 escalators, how many is each tech responsible for?

I don't know the answers but I have a hard time quantifying what the "same amount of work" is. I do know that those are important questions to be answered before we decide that the ensuing meme "senior techs do nothing for 6 months" is accurate.

As to the exec vs. junior angle, I haven't many similar to what you've describe as common at your company.

by HogWash on Dec 3, 2010 4:49 pm • linkreport

Before we all go calling for the elimination of unions, let me emphasize that I believe unions have an important role.
How can a union represent its members while also grading their job performance? How is it the union's fault that management is so inept that it can't follow proper procedure efficiently to fire union members?

Therefore, no harm done in calling for the elimination of unions! Show management it has the political capital it needs to do what needs to be done.

by Turnip on Dec 3, 2010 9:19 pm • linkreport

Metro: Shut it down. Sell it. The government needs to get out of the transportation business.

by JAY on Dec 3, 2010 9:24 pm • linkreport

Technicians at metro pick based upon what territory they want to work in which is usually based on where they live. If a technician lives near the Branch Avenue station they probably won't pick the Shady Grove territory. It's primarily based on reporting Location. Why would somebody drive across the region to work on equippment that they could just as easily work on ten minutes from where they live?

K

by Kaleel on Dec 3, 2010 10:14 pm • linkreport

Pretty tortured logic. People with seniority get to pick where they work, what they work on. Not like that never happens in the non0union world. No one with seniority would ever think of claiming a window or corner office in a white collar environment (smirk!). No proof that this leads to poorer maintenance. David is just pandering to the libertarians that he bizarrely thinks will be allies of good urban planning. Markos of Dailykos tried this for about 5 minutes a few years ago and discovered that the libertarians could give a shit about anything other than cutting rich peoples' taxes. Not everyone can be a dot.com beneficiary like you.

by Rich on Dec 3, 2010 10:57 pm • linkreport

@ Rob

Agree. David's question is really about seniority. David's proposed alternate system doesn't change anything. Management picks the bottom 10%, and the next bottom 10%, based on their statistical model Then the union will just apply seniority rules, and save the senior-most employees from the bottom 20%. The overall goal of eliminating long-serving, poor performing workers would be largely frustrated.

So how do you get unions to give up seniority? I doubt you can. First, who runs the unions? Workers - working your way up through the union heirarchy takes time, so that anyone with any say at the negotiating table has seniority - of course that's gonna be protected.

Second, its not just selfishness - it protects the union. Seniority rules protect union reps, who might otherwise be targeted by management for their organizing activities. Given how much leeway the federal courts give businesses when it comes to attempted union-busting, anything other than a clear simple rule protecting union reps is just asking for trouble.

Third, unions want to protect older workers who have been loyal to the company and the union. Getting old is part of life - but it shouldn't mean getting fired. So unions want to protect the most senior employees, who might not come out on the top of employee productivity ratings when compared to 30-year olds.

Finally, management is invariably short-sighted about layoffs. Layoffs are a cost-cutting move, and the easiest way to cut costs is fire the more expensive workers. That means that on its own, management would prefer to TARGET workers based on seniority - especially when considering my previous point about older workers. Naturally, unions protect against that.

by Ethan on Dec 3, 2010 11:10 pm • linkreport

BTW, in many cities, as teachers gain more seniority they get to transfer into schools in "nice neighborhoods", i.e. with fewer poor kids. Pretty obvious how that can undermine the public good in an analogous way as the pick system might assign the best mechanics to the easy-to-fix escalators.

This is a problematic analogy, because it implies that "problem kids" need and deserve better teachers, in the same way that "problem elevators" should get more maintenance.

It's pretty obvious that most of the maintenance effort should go into the most problematical elevators. That's because you can't improve an elevator once it's already working properly; any extra maintenance resources dedicated to it are wasted.

Kids aren't like that at all. Assigning teaching resources to "problem kids" helps raise them to a more acceptable level of performance. But assigning teaching resources to "well-performing kids" helps make them perform even better yet. And high performers are really important to our society.

It's fair to say that we shouldn't just assign all of the best teachers to the "best" kids, and leave the rest to suffer. But neither should we assign all of the best teachers to the "problem" kids, even if we could.

by David desJardins on Dec 4, 2010 1:36 am • linkreport

But is this true? Do these guys really get paid to do nothing for six months? Literally nothing? That doesn't sound believable.

Really? It sounds totally believable to me. A huge fraction of public expenditures are wasted. That doesn't mean we don't need them---we can't just shut down all of the Metro escalators---but it's common sense to expect that the elaborate work rules that are common in the public sector have a dramatic negative effect on productivity.

by David desJardins on Dec 4, 2010 1:38 am • linkreport

It sounds like they pushed responsibility for individual escalators a little too far down in the chain. Would it have worked better if they had assigned responsibility to the lowest level supervisor that wasn't union? Then you could investigate, fire or at least discipline the supervisors that weren't able to keep their assigned escalators running.

My source mentioned that escalator work does not require active supervision at all times, but it should have supervisors that go around and check up on the work that's being done.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 4, 2010 1:13 pm • linkreport

Seniority interferes with sending the best qualified people to the most appropriate job. Look no further than the US Congress to see how this can frustrate efficient operation.

by Jasper on Dec 4, 2010 2:20 pm • linkreport

@ Ethan: "So unions want to protect the most senior employees, who might not come out on the top of employee productivity ratings when compared to 30-year olds."

Do you see this as a laudable goal? As a taxpayer, I'd prefer that the most productive employees remain.

by dcd on Dec 4, 2010 3:05 pm • linkreport

However, many unions, especially public employee unions, also fall into the unfortunate position of fighting against the firing of bad workers.

A labor union in a closed shop like Metro is a cartel that monopolizes the provision of labor. We know from economics that monopolies both raise prices and reduce quality. In the case of labor unions, the quality reductions come in the form of work rules, which also increase pay. The union has no incentive to change productivity-destroying work rules, as it would reduce the leisure that workers can obtain. If a worker becomes very productive, the cartel would be threatened by paying him more, so his pay is not increased and his productivity reverts to the negotiated norm.

The only way out of this problem is to eliminate the union. In the private sector, the threat of unemployment often forces unions to make concessions. (Think of the auto industry.) In the public sector, competitively hiring public contractors will force concessions. Often, the union is allowed to bid on the contracts and win because of their cost advantage (no need for profit). Metro privatized escalator maintenance once, but probably did not monitor performance adequately. Privatization with proper incentives (e.g., compensation based on measurable escalator performance) should do the trick.

by Chuck Coleman on Dec 4, 2010 9:12 pm • linkreport

this post is confusing.

we need to be able to remove bad managers and bad working stiffs, period. let's find a way to do that so we don't have these crazy-horrific incentive systems like using phony RIF actions just to get rid of some bad employees.

Public unions need to stop defending the bad apples

I'm fine with this, as long as politicians stop defending them, too. So, the next time a WMATA manager doesn't do his job and a whole bunch of people are maimed and killed, then that manager needs to be fired. But at Metro, like in many public agencies, even a small minority of poor managers gives the entire agency a bad reputation, and political reality makes it remarkably difficult to fire them.

Terminating individuals for cause takes a tremendous amount of time and effort.

and maybe it should. one aspect i like about the NYC teacher rubber rooms is that workers cannot be dumped into the street so easily -- figuratively and literally. the system still needs reform, obviously, but it's a step in the right direction from the reality that most Americans face.

This is not in the best interest of the labor movement generally, since it undermines political support for organized labor and doesn't actually improve the lot of most workers, But individual unions or workers aren't focused on that.

this is where a 'transit manager/worker rubber room' can come into play. we have to get these under-performing managers and workers out of the immediate system, and then transition them out of the system completely as gracefully as possible.

[There's a small punctuation/something typo with the "workers, But" part.]

Before we all go calling for the elimination of unions, let me emphasize that I believe unions have an important role. ...

Sometimes having a union does serve the public interest, but in this case of firing bad people it does not.

Is it possible to make firing poorly performing union employees easier without throwing out the whole organized labor system?

These statements, because of poorly-chosen words, i would argue, say somewhat contradictory things -- the first sentence says "unions should exist" and the second and third sentences say "maybe unions should not exist".

Taking the final statement -- CEOs are fired, Governors are recalled, Presidents are forced to resign and are impeached (and can, conceivably, be convicted and subsequently removed), etc., and in none of these cases was it required that we eliminate the corporate system, the system of state governance, or the Office of the President, respectively. So, no, i don't believe we have to get rid of the system of organized labor just to be able to remove a bad union employee.

Usually, released managers/executives get golden parachutes. So, going back to The Golden Rule (the basic moral/ethical principle of reciprocity), if managers/executives get a golden parachute, then workers deserve one, too. Let's create a transit rubber room with golden parachutes for released managers and workers.

You've got to align incentives. The problem with WMATA is the series of incentives they have aren't ones that customers want or care about.

i don't know if the above statement is true, but i would say that customers deserve a say, since they're stakeholders. Reminds of me all the NBA/NFL lockouts that are about to happen -- what about the fans -- shouldn't they get a say?

UK doctors get incentives to keep their patients healthy -- why not incentivize the union to keep the escalators healthy?

I agree unions tend to be confrontational.

not sure what this means, but i'd probably be pretty confrontational with folks who wanted to fire me or my coworkers, cut my salary and/or benefits, etc.

And in most cases, they still stick to that approach even when offered tremendous amounts of money in return for giving it up.

sometimes union can plan for remaining viable in the long-term -- i'd argue that's smart.

As I think about this I wonder if maybe union rank and file need an incentive to care about others' performance.

this is along the lines of what i'm thinking about with the 'transit rubber rooms'. maybe the worker gets a five-year full-salary golden parachute, and the union could choose to keep that worker on staff, 'in the rubber room', after the five year mark, but it would start counting against the union/existing workers in some way.

I saw a stat earlier this year, don't remember the source, that public employees make up 51% of all union members in America.

not sure if that's true -- didn't see it after a quick glance at the wiki page. seems like it could be true. but, just like we should allow biking, we should allow unionization. we do that, and we won't have to worry about public agencies having an over-representative percentage of unionized workers.

i know that, contrary to what Fox/etc. would have us believe, union membership rates and power in the US are at a near 80-year low (since about the 1930s, i think), and unionization in the US is dismal compared to the rest of the modern industrialized world. that's part of why big business hates unions, and is loving these sky-high unemployment rates right now -- it makes it so much easier to exploit workers.

considering this whole discussion is based on an anonymous source, do any of us have an idea all of what goes into a techicians job?

i'd argue this is a generalized problem seen in public transit agencies all over the US -- out here in the SF area, it seems there's a new case every couple months or so of some drunken bus driver swearing at passengers or running people over or just random crazy/outrageous/illegal stuff, and it's basically impossible to remove them from their jobs. that's obviously insane, and not something we should tolerate. most transit advocates out there deal with it by not dealing with it at all. maybe DC will be different.

How can a union represent its members while also grading their job performance?

a riders advocacy group could play a role, here, though the exact role would have to be worked out, of course.

It's pretty obvious that most of the maintenance effort should go into the most problematical elevators.

whenever there exists some seemingly-intractable problem, i think...'Should we even put up with this problem at all?'

in this case, that might mean a bunch of things, but one possible solution could be to do away with escalators altogether. want to ride public transit? expect to get some exercise.

or maybe we run only the 'going up' escalators? or maybe we invest in escalator technology that actually works? all those 'small' escalators inside the transfer stations? turn 'em off -- we can't afford 'em anymore. convert them to regular staircases -- besides, these smaller escalators probably just slow the flow of people down, like those horizontal/moving sidewalks in airports. maybe make two 'big up escalators' operational at all times, but only one active and one on standby for when one of them inevitably fails.

does any real preventative maintenance work happen on these escalators?

planes don't generally fall out of the sky. are escalators that sophisticated and fragile that they can't be made to work reliably? let's shoot for 99.9% of guaranteed uptime during operating hours. anything less, and the Metro Manager and Union Chief both get fired unless a majority in a public referendum votes to keep them on.

escalators -- bad for sustainability, reliability, injuries, cost (parts/labor/insurance/reputation), etc. etc. etc.

by Peter Smith on Dec 5, 2010 12:59 pm • linkreport

I think that the "pick" system is ridiculous and a stupid way to reward skill.
1. Seniority is a proxy for experience. Sometimes those with less experience are more senior, but not always. If the most senior people never do much work, what experience are they getting?
2. Typically, greater seniority comes with more experience and skill, and commands higher salary. However, you don't reward the most skilled by giving them the easiest jobs: that is insane. In most industries you give the most difficult work to those with most experience. The junior people learn by working with those with most experience.
3. If the most difficult work is being done by those with less experience, it suggests that the value of seniority is highly over-rated, since such seniority and experience is unecessary. Therefore, the salaries and benefits of senior people should be cut.
4. The complaint that outcomes, skills etc are difficult to measure is true, but irrelevant. If you don't have a measure for outcomes, you cannot track performance and improve, and things languish. The arguments should be over what measures, not whether to measure at all.

None of this should mean unfairness to people. However, you cannot preach pride in work while covering for people who are incompetent, corrupt and ineffective.

by SJE on Dec 5, 2010 1:50 pm • linkreport

I'm fine with this, as long as politicians stop defending them, too. So, the next time a WMATA manager doesn't do his job and a whole bunch of people are maimed and killed, then that manager needs to be fired.

Why is it conditional? Let's suppose that WMATA has the worst management ever. How does that make it good to keep employees who aren't productive? Two wrongs don't make a right.

by David desJardins on Dec 6, 2010 1:23 am • linkreport

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