For Phil’s Sake

Jace Yarbrough: Governor Walker isn’t exactly pro-union, but he may be doing more for union members than we realize.

Public sector unions have been in the headlines often over the past year or so; mostly because of the controversy surrounding Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s efforts to heavily restrict collective bargaining techniques for public sector unions in his state. Criticism of his decision has been severe, and he may be in danger of losing a June recall election. Opponents of the governor’s policy usually argue that union members are worse off because of their weakened bargaining position, while his supporters claim such measures are necessary for the fiscal health of Wisconsin. But perhaps a reduction in bargaining power is actually better for union members, apart from their share in the state’s welfare.

A few weeks ago some of us here at HP got together to publish our thoughts on the increasing class divisions among white Americans. My post drew a connection between the reported discontentment of the bottom 20% and their lifestyles of isolation. I think public sector employment coupled with membership in a public sector union is inimical to deep satisfaction in life for the reason outlined in that article: consistently considering others (and otherness) is a necessary condition for the good life.

Most of us agree that in order to do hard things humans need to be convinced that what they’re doing matters. It’s a universal characteristic even Nietzsche couldn’t dismiss, “And Zarathustra spake…’Let your will say: The Superman SHALL BE the meaning of the earth!’” Unfortunately government employment (at least at the lower pay scales) tends to separate consequences from personal action.

Here’s an example from my experience.

For reasons unimportant to this essay my co-workers and I were having extended daily meetings in a conference room away from our offices. About mid-week we all returned from a break to find Phil, a morbidly obese co-worker who wasn’t a part of our group, reclining in a corner wearing his usual Lakers cap, sweat pants, t-shirt, and sneakers. Being the rookie I didn’t say anything, assuming that since no one else thought it strange I shouldn’t either. When Phil dosed off and remained asleep for the remainder of our meeting, I again kept my mouth shut. (He was still there when we left.)

I later found out that Phil was a union representative; he was at our meeting in order to advocate for the needs of union members—which no one in our office was. One of Phil’s biggest problems (at least at work) is that he is rarely forced to acknowledge his condition relative to something outside of himself, i.e. an other. Just like the other tens of thousands of government employees that work in his organization, Phil always receives the highest score possible on his yearly evaluations, regardless of his activities and performance. (His rater’s life gets a whole lot more uncomfortable if anything less than a perfect score is reported.) On top of that, it would take criminal activity or a very, very, very memo-happy and perseverant supervisor for Phil to be fired.

All this job security and fluffy evaluating means Phil has zero motivation to add value to the lives of his fellow citizens. As far as he knows, he’s doing fine. But for those times when Phil doesn’t want to seem like he isn’t pulling his weight he can engage in one of the handful of pitiful mechanisms the government has for making apathetic workers do nothing in a way that (on papers) appears to be a good use of time. For example, while I was working in Phil’s place of employment, every 6-8 weeks someone from our office spent a full workday watching a janitor clean. Why? We worked in a restricted building, and all the janitors employed by the company that was hired to clean our complex had some form of legal handicap that disqualified them from receiving a security clearance, which meant they always had to have an escort.

The last thing Phil needs is another layer of “job protection” or mechanisms through which he can get more smoke breaks, more pay, or colder water from the water fountain. (Unfortunately I didn’t make that last grievance up.) Which is why I’m not so sure that Phil isn’t better off because it’s harder for him to get his way.

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