Friday, April 22, 2011

Union Bashing - Good Or Bad?

How do I perceive unions, particularly public employee unions?

My childhood memories are of the already slow and congested life in Calcutta (now Kolkata) coming to a halt during general strikes called "bandhs" that occurred all too often.  On the good days workers would take time off after their lunch break to stage demonstrations in support of "worker rights" that meant more pay, less work, and more additions to already bloated payrolls.

We then moved to the scenic hill station of Darjeeling (of tea fame) with little union activity where I spent my middle and high school years.  But union activity and strikes were much in fashion when I entered college at the University of Delhi.  Most colleges in our 110,000 strong University used to be closed for a couple of weeks a year due to strikes by students and non-teaching staff (called "karamcharies".)

The University karamcharies earned about 50% more than their counterparts in the private sector.  Our college education was publicly funded and nearly free and few of us were aware of what exactly were the demands of the striking students.  To most it seemed a way to avoid classes and inject a little excitement by clashing with authorities.  Our own St. Stephen's College with 1000+ students was one of the very few (of the nearly 100 colleges and departments comprising the University) that refused to take part in any strikes.  So police would be posted outside our gates to guard against trouble by outside strikers who resented our non-involvement.

Years later after joining the IAS I was on the other side, with my fair share of handling public union negotiations, agitations and strikes.  One of my later stints was as Municipal Commissioner (city manager) of Shimla city that had one of the most militant public unions.  They would strike or disrupt services about twice a year in spite of the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) that made these jail-able offenses.  That's because ESMA was never invoked, or action under it was rapidly withdrawn as a precondition for any settlement.  Of our 1100 employees, we had over 600 sanitation workers as part of previous concessions to the union though we needed no more than 400.  Their pay and benefits were double of those in the private sector.

Early in my Shimla MC tenure the union went on strike and their staff threw buckets of human feces in my office in appreciation of my engaging temporary replacements to keep the city going.  It took me and my team almost a year to draw up contingency plans and train home guards to distribute water and run other facilities in case of future stoppages.  In a subsequent strike, I used these preparations to maintain services, deployed armed police to guard our strategic installations against sabotage and invoked ESMA to penalize strikers and restore normalcy. It was the first time this had happened in the (then) 120 year history of Shimla, and put a stop to labor troubles for the next three years.

 By then I had come to the "capitalist" US and expected things to be very different here, but there are commonalities.  Political leaders here also tend to make deals with public unions to smooth their own tenure even while giving away long term benefits that devastate budgets down the road.  Then there are the illegal strikes disrupting essential services that are barred by US laws (also all too often failed to be invoked by the authorities).  For example the New York transit strike of 2005 disrupted life for millions and violated the Taylor Law (similar to ESMA) but the violators received a mere slap on the wrist.  Then there are the airline pilots unions who get around strike bans by staging mass sick-outs.  Employees avoiding duty by falsely claiming to be sick can be fired, and the management can easily require medical testing by an independent board in such circumstances, yet this abuse is taken in stride.

Even in the broader philosophical context one can question the value and social contributions of unions.  Collective bargaining had a big and useful role to play in the old days when a few large and powerful employers could collude to keep wages and benefits artificially low.  Or when a race to the bottom (in costs) could cause unsafe conditions or extreme hardship in the absence of public safety laws.

But most or all of this is now inapplicable since mechanisms are in place for protecting workers through anti-trust laws, OSHA, the Minimum Wage Act and the like.  It is these laws that ensured a five day work week, stopped child labor and promoted worker safety much more than the unions, contrary to claims by film maker Michael Moore on Stephen Colbert on his March 29 show, or by union leader Richard Trumka in a WSJ Op-Ed on March 4.

Almost by definition so long as there is no employer collusion or monopoly, union activity is an attempt to secure wages and benefits over and above the free market level.  In the latter the workers are free to go (or be wooed away) to where they get the best compensation for their services, according to their perceived worth.  Instead, collective bargaining can look a lot like collective blackmail, as when workers at the GM plant making engine transmissions threaten or go on strike bringing most production to a halt.  No wonder US manufacturers want to diversify production globally to make them less vulnerable, and it's not just to go to where labor costs are lowest. 

So yes, I'm not a fan of unions nor view them as net contributors to public welfare, as their raising of US labor costs has contributed at least partially to the current level of unemployment.  There are some pro-union laws and practices that beg for change.  For example, see how the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is trying to force Boeing to locate its Dreamliner assembly plant in heavily unionized Washington State, instead of in South Carolina.  In 2008 Boeing workers in Washington went on a 58 day strike that cost Boeing $1.8 billion.  So Boeing management understandably wanted to instal new plants in less unionized and more business friendly locations.  The NLRB interpreted this as illegal retaliation against union activity.  The WSJ in its April 21 Opinion pages rightly deplores NLRB's sandbagging of Boeing and calls for a change in such a system.

And what of Republican efforts to restrict bargaining by public unions on matters other than their salaries, or do away with compulsory contributions by workers to their union funds?  In principle I find little wrong with that.  We already know that politicians are not mindful of future liabilities that their concessions to unions can impose on future administrations.  That's a big reason why our states and local governments are in budgetary crises.  As far as union contributions go, why should workers be forced to contribute if they don't want to?  That's the situation in the "right to work" states in the South that employers find more attractive, and such forced contributions did not commonly exist even in more socialist countries like India.

On the other hand I'm perfectly fine with the unions launching concerted drives to mobilize public opinion against Republican union busters, and trying to recall elected representatives as they are doing in Wisconsin.  Besides, Governor Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in Wisconsin have been quite weaselly in their actions.  For instance, they have specifically exempted police and firefighter unions from the new restrictions, apparently because these union members traditionally lean Republican.  These uniformed personnel that are vital to maintaining security and safety should be specifically barred from union activity, as they are, even in India, let alone favored with special exemptions.

Indiana and Ohio states under Republican leadership have also moved to curb the scope of collective bargaining by public employees.  But they have sought a more uniform implementation without picking any favorites, so their actions are fairer and a better blueprint for change than those of Walker & Co. in Wisconsin.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Aftermath Of Friend's Murder

Last week I received a call from someone who requested anonymity, and I'll call him Charlie.  He had seen my post of April 18, 2008 about the murder of my childhood friend Aasha Chhabra and her husband Brij in Troy, Michigan.  He wanted to update me with news about their killers so as to afford closure to the family.  (We haven't got in touch with the Thadani's young daughter, their only child, though.)

The murders had been arranged by Narayan Thadani who had betrayed Aasha's complete trust in him by selling her landed property in India and stealing the proceeds of over $2 million.  He was about to lose it all in a court case and hired two men from El Salvadore for the killings.  Narayan pleaded guilty and he as well as the two hit men all received life terms in prison in October 2010 while another accomplice got 30 years after turning state's evidence.

Charlie himself is an ex-convict who met Narayan in the Houston prison where he is now serving his sentence.  Charlie called Narayan an evil and scary person who while awaiting trial almost nonchalantly sought help from fellow inmates to hire a hit man to kill the FBI agent who was investigating his case.  Narayan apparently bore that agent a grudge and also thought the killing would remove a vital prosecution witness and help his court defense.  His fellow prisoners instead tipped off the authorities.  He was put in touch with an undercover FBI agent posing as a contract killer, and caught.

Charlie sent me the docket containing the charges for the murders of the Chhabras for which Narayan pleaded guilty, as well as for attempted murder of the FBI agent, which didn't really carry any additional downside as Narayan will spend the rest of his life behind bars anyway.

While it's good that Narayan and the three others got caught and punished, I'm still bothered by our justice system coddling perpetrators of such terrible crimes, as I opined in my September 3, 2009 post.  There is not even any lingering doubt about the guilt of all these men yet they don't get to pay the ultimate price.  The gentle and thoroughly decent Chhabras have been murdered, and their ruthless killers spend their lives in prison conditions that are better than that of much of humanity on the outside. 

Rehabilitation should of course play a role depending on the circumstances.  Charlie's own crimes were a lot less serious (why they mix prisoners whose degrees of offenses are so disparate is beyond me.)  He came across as a well spoken person who had turned his life around, and I wish him well.