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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The public image of labor unions 


Twenty years or so ago, while we were living in Chicago, the city did a lot of work on the LaSalle Street bridge. Every day we would drive to work over the bridge, and every day we passed a van obviously owned by one of the workers. He had painted messages on the two rear doors of the van. The first one said "Union and Proud Of It". The other one said "Same Shit, Different Day."

Thousands of drivers passed that same sour message every day, many of them no doubt thinking that a guy with an attitude that bad needs a union to keep his job.

But here is what interested me: That van was one horrible advertisement for trade unionism. Every time I read an article about union corruption or absurd work rules I would remember that van. No doubt there are many other people who also do. To this day I am amazed that the boss of his local did not tell the guy to park his van somewhere else.

The truth is, unions do not seem to care that corruption and laughable demands backed by extortion make it hard for anybody other than Democratic politicians and hopelessly romantic lefties to support industrial trade unions. From today's, *cough*, New York Times:

For more than a decade, federal officials and court-appointed monitors have strained to clean up two New York-area unions, representing cement truck drivers and construction laborers, that prosecutors say were long under Mafia control.

Indeed, prosecutors once described the cement truck drivers’ union, Local 282 of the Teamsters, as a “candy store” for the mob that they say funneled $1.2 million a year to John Gotti, the longtime Gambino crime family boss who died in prison in 2002.

On Thursday, federal, state and local authorities announced one of the most expansive organized crime indictments in years, involving 87 defendants, including much of the leadership of the Gambino crime family. In the 170-page indictment, which was filled with nicknames like “Jackie the Nose” and “Fat Richie” and accusations of extortion and murder, was evidence that cleanup efforts of the Teamsters and the Laborers have fallen short.

The problem is, apparently, structural:
Robert D. Luskin, a former federal organized crime prosecutor who is special counsel to the Laborers’ International Union of North America as part of a decade-long internal effort to root out corruption, said the labor racketeering charges were not surprising.

“The fact is the dollars involved in the construction industry are so great and the opportunities at so many levels for corruption are so broad that this is a problem that will never, ever go away,” he said.

Prosecutors say the unions that deliver cement and other building supplies have long been a magnet for Mafia involvement because mob officials know that if they delay deliveries, construction companies can lose large amounts of money. Those union locals thus become an ideal pressure point for extortion.

In other words, a union lawyer admits that union officials cannot deny themselves the temptation of corruption. You know, because the "opportunities at so many levels for corruption are so broad."

Then there is this story, also this week, from Philadelphia about the stranglehold the construction unions have on the city's contractors:
It’s difficult to get anyone who works with the trades to speak openly about the power they still wield. But with time, stories start to emerge: a black town car sitting at the school bus stop where a contractor’s children wait. Cars following a developer’s employees from Center City across two counties. Handbills distributed to children at a school. Threats.

“Look, I can’t talk about this stuff on the record,” one major Philadelphia developer said. “You’re talking about some rough people. And this is my living. These are my children.”

A developer who recently relocated to Philadelphia from another city said he’s now forced to allocate a million dollars each year for security at his job sites — “All union-related,” he said.

What was his security budget his last year in the previous city?

“Zero,” he said, forming a circle with his fingers and thumb.

One developer arms his workers with pocket-size video recorders, so they can capture any nefarious acts on film.

It’s been well documented that in 2003, some of John Dougherty’s electricians turned up to disrupt Sam Katz’s mayoral campaign — “Thugs,” Katz calls them. And Frank Keel — then Street’s right-hand man, with the loud voice and long arms — once sent public letters under a false name to the Daily News, disparaging Katz as the election approached. So did Keel’s wife.

Some business owners say certain unions — and not all unions are alike — run an efficient shakedown operation: If you don’t hire us, at three times the lowest bid, protesters with picket signs and insinuations might show up at your burger joint. In years past, such a union protest might have stopped Philadelphians from entering a business. But that’s changing; on the day the electricians picketed Five Guys — perhaps signaling a shift in public regard for the unions — diners filled the restaurant like any other day.

Other businesses claim similar encounters with Philadelphia unions. In 2004, the producers of MTV’s The Real World famously packed up and left town when confronted by the city’s unions. They returned eventually — after public demonstrations against the unions — but the debacle made Philadelphia notorious in the film and television industry. Likewise, the city’s reputation has long suffered among groups who book events at the Convention Center, only to encounter union entanglements. For instance, due to labyrinthine union work rules, multi-step tasks must be done in a certain order; masonry workers might stand around waiting for carpenters to build a new form to hold their cement, while the carpenters wait for laborers to demolish the old form, and they in turn wait for the electricians to shut off power. Meanwhile, everyone is paid. Even worse than the cost is the embarrassment for the city: In 2002, for instance, a carpenter and his union’s leader got into a fistfight on the Convention Center floor.


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It’s as if Philadelphia wanted to host a fancy party, but the crazy-uncle unions always drank too much and soiled the living room carpet.

A poll a few years ago revealed that only 17 percent of Philadelphia’s Convention Center shows choose to return to the city. The Pennsylvania Convention Center commissioned a group of consultants to find out why. The consultants reported back that “virtually every customer reported that PCC show labor was inefficient, hostile, or both. The PCC labor situation is perceived as the worst encountered anywhere in the country at this time.”

That is to say: The unions here are the worst in America. The Convention Center’s desperate administrators cry that the unions scare off customers, and — to give a sense of scale — all Center City feels the impact. Restaurants suffer. Hotels suffer. Movie theaters, souvenir shops, taxi drivers suffer. Taxpayers all.

A couple of years ago, Philadelphia witnessed one of the worst moments — or the best, depending which side you’re on — in the history of its labor unions. The day of disgrace — or, again, triumph — began with a claim to bragging rights. Thanks to the new Comcast tower, Philadelphia would boast the country’s tallest “green” building: 58 floors of ecological friendliness. The designers found special glass, special paint, special toilets and special carpet that would earn the building an official seal from the U.S. Green Building Council: a prestigious and forward-thinking achievement for the City of Philadelphia.

But about those special toilets.

They’re flushless urinals that require no water; gravity does the work, pulling the waste through a filter and then down a pipe and into the sewage system. It’s clean and efficient, and in the Comcast building alone, it would save the city 1.6 million gallons of water each year.

Not so fast, the city’s plumbers union said. Less water means fewer pipes. Fewer pipes mean less work. And so the union blocked the job, threatening the completion of the building, and in turn delaying all the business that would happen inside it. But worst of all was the prospect of losing the title of “tallest green building” to that most dastardly of cities: New York. The Comcast tower would stand 975 feet, only a bit taller than the 962-foot Bank of America building under construction in New York. And the Big Apple’s building came equipped, of course, with the special toilets.

In a stunning testament to the power of Philadelphia’s unions, the city twaddled in the face of a clear decision: “We’re still looking into this,” the top building code official told the Inquirer at the time. “I want to make sure they’re safe.”

Sounds prudent, except that flushless toilets have long been installed at elementary schools elsewhere in the state, as well as in state government offices. And so far, both children and bureaucrats have remained intact.

One clue to Philadelphia’s paralysis lies in the city’s building code: Philadelphia is, for example, said to be the only large city in America that doesn’t call for PVC pipe as the standard plumbing material. It still calls for cast iron. PVC is cheaper, lighter and longer lasting. But one plumber can carry 10 lengths of PVC pipe; it takes 10 plumbers to carry a length of cast iron.

Unions once created important leverage for American workers. It is understandable and perhaps even correct that some people believe that a reinvigoration of labor unions would improve the incomes of workers. Perhaps they would, but at whose expense? Unions demonstrate, time and time again, that their main ambition is to prevent gains in productivity. After all, their goal is to force you to hire ten plumbers to do the work of one.

Perhaps it really is the same shit, different day.

12 Comments:

By Blogger Miss Ladybug, at Sun Feb 10, 10:33:00 PM:

My best friend and her husband lived just outside of Kansas City for a time. I went up to visit a couple of times. On one of those trips, we all went out to dinner with their next door neighbors. The husband was an electrician who worked in a non-union shop. His shop was busy all the time, because they were able to bid competitively (don't have to quote union labor rates). Electricians employed at union shops were often not working because their shops weren't winning bids. Tell me, which is better: to be in a union and not get paid because your union labor rates price you out of the market, or to be non-union and bring home a decent paycheck regularly because your shop can better control costs and remain competitive? I think bringing home the regular paycheck wins...  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Feb 10, 11:28:00 PM:

Labor Unions are too connected to organized crime and the mafia and are run by thugs and they are too corupt  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Feb 10, 11:43:00 PM:

I find that often people are aware of union corruption and aren't willing to defend unions though unions still get traction in a weird logic that goes something like this "union corruption provides a check on business corruption."

It's also worth pointing out that a lot of decent, talented union members are unhappy that certain co-workers are incomptenent.

A few bad apples...  

By Blogger rickl, at Mon Feb 11, 01:36:00 AM:

It's also worth pointing out that a lot of decent, talented union members are unhappy that certain co-workers are incompetent.

I'm sure that's true, but it also works the other way around. I read a story a few years ago about a young British coal miner. He had a certain quota of work he had to do in a week, and being young and gung-ho, he got it done early Friday. He went to the boss to ask him if there was anything else that needed doing, and was told that due to union rules, he was to sit down and wait until the end of the day. He wasn't allowed to do any more work. Of course he got paid during this time. Needless to say, his fellow union workers weren't too happy with him for making them look bad.

Sorry; I don't have a link. It's just something I remember reading.

Also, I live near Philadelphia, and I'm familiar with several of the incidents mentioned in the article. That was a good article.  

By Blogger D.E. Cloutier, at Mon Feb 11, 10:03:00 AM:

Twenty years ago a labor union tried to play tough during a strike at a plant in Northern California. I showed up with 40 security guards from Southern California. The guards were former Marines and/or former members of Los Angeles street gangs. Four union goons suffered black eyes and broken bones when they tried to beat up two guards. The guards were uninjured. The striking employees resigned from the union after nine days.  

By Blogger Georg Felis, at Mon Feb 11, 10:43:00 AM:

The problem with Unions is they depend inherently on a conspiracy among a large number of people in order to drive the price of Labor up above market prices. Once you have established that conspiracy (Yes I’m using this word for impact), it takes very little for it to blossom into a criminal conspiracy complete with intimidation and violence. There are some Unions who have managed to walk that delicate line and attract qualified people at reasonable prices, but they are fairly defenseless against the criminals behind other Unions when they move in. Thank God for the FBI in those cases.

Not to mention that the leaderships of some Unions tend to the most loudmouthed idiots who can make the most idiotic decisions sound good. (Anybody remember the Previous Association of Air Traffic Controllers who thought Reagan was bluffing?)  

By Blogger David M, at Mon Feb 11, 01:04:00 PM:

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 02/11/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.  

By Blogger CW, at Mon Feb 11, 01:24:00 PM:

NY State bans PVC pipe in high-rises and in all multifamily buildings. Some municipalities ban it altogether.

chsw  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Feb 11, 03:44:00 PM:

Thanks for outing the Philadelphia unions for being what they are -- Goonions.

I've a Philadelphia native, and the unions are a mortal embarrassment and strangle the city. Perhaps Mayor Nutter can put them in their place, given that they didn't support him when he ran in the Democratic primary (which practically decides who will be mayor, as the Republicans are weak in the city).

The punchline for the Comcast Tower was that they built it with the green pipe and the cast-iron pipe to mollify the unions -- even though the cast-iron pipe serves no purpose at all in the building.

Why should anyone be proud of this stuff or an affiliation with much of organized labor? If you're good at what you do and are a union member, the odds could well be that you're getting shortchanged, whether you're an electrician or a teacher.

The Centrist  

By Blogger joated, at Mon Feb 11, 09:10:00 PM:

A buddy of mine works in the mason's union in the Albany, NY area. He has a business degree and had his own business for a while. If NY were friendlier to small businesses he'd still be doing stamped concrete on his own. The paperwork and regulations killed him.

He has told me some interesting stories of union labor and representation.

Right now, he can't wait to get vested in the union so he can get out.  

By Blogger jj mollo, at Tue Feb 12, 08:19:00 AM:

Actually, this is good news to me. I live in Philadelphia and I assumed that the rest of the country had the same problems. It's particularly aggravating to me because my family has a union history. Owners and management have acted very badly, and they still do, but unions are no longer doing anything good for the workers. The problem is the great political distance between the worker and the union leaders. There's no check on them. Corruption hurts the members as well as the businesses. There's not much check on developers either.

Ed Rendell did an amazing job turning Philadelphia around when he was mayor. One thing he did was to confront city worker unions. He didn't go along to get along. I'm hoping for big things from Michael Nutter as well. We still have a long way to go.  

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