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The invincible ignorance of really bad management, now on display in the state house

When conservatives say government should be run like a business, this is the kind of thing they mean:

Unlike most Reason writers, I have had the occasion to negotiate union contracts, always on the side of management, and as I must--persistently and insistently--remind my colleagues, some of whom were also on the goddamned negotiating team, we agreed to the terms and conditions that we love to bitch about.

Management in any case has all the real advantages in a negotiation if management is willing to use them. But most of the time, managers are lazy negotiators and fail to do their work in advance. An unconquerable belief that unions are irrational combined with a childlike wonderment in the face of a bargaining unit that does not acquiesce to management demands with the supine, college-educated spinelessness of the at-will staff in the upstairs offices, leads managers to enter negotiations with functionally final proposals. A few union officials willing to start off asking for the sun, moon, and stars then move toward a more agreeable (for them) middle, which is still far from what management wants. But management just sat dumbly reiterating the points that it thought every rational person would naturally agree to. And in the end, managers are pissed that they got what they consider a bad deal, because it was not the shining deal they wanted, and they act like they had nothing to do with it, even though they were at the table the whole time.

You could of course try to do a better job negotiating next time, or you could try to make unions illegal as punishment for your or your predecessors' terrible tactics, absent strategy, and lack of acumen at the bargaining table. This is the lens through which you have to view various state efforts to make collective bargaining illegal and to decertify labor unions: management is trying to punish labor for management's own failures.

Like that's a bad thing?

NOTE Because if pro-business politicians were really any good at business that's what they would be doing, and not politics. I mean, aside from their own small and very personal businesses as service providers for whoever's got the money.

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Bryan's picture
Submitted by Bryan on

Having been on the labor side of such negotiations for a public employees union I have had to explain how we got things that we wanted to toss during negotiations. I mean they were nice, but some of them were just weird, thrown in at the last minute, in one case as a joke, literally.

Management, especially public officials really suck as negotiators.

The problem for the union negotiators is that you can't really tell them that they left too much crap in the contract.

People forget that public employees pay taxes too, and they don't want to pay for extraneous garbage that no one really wanted, but there are rules.

Incompetence on the part of management is also a prime cause for worthless employees being retained. The union has to protect the rights of workers, even if the majority of their co-workers want the individuals fired. It is frustrating to watch management screw up what is a simple and straight forward procedure that would rid the system of worthless people.

cal1942's picture
Submitted by cal1942 on

Your note following the excerpt is priceless.

God save us from business people in political office.

For that matter save us from business people who are still in business.

Submitted by lambert on

.... McCloskey called "The American Question," which is: If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?

McClosky is interesting as an economist, as opposed to interesting as a trans-gendered individual, because McCloskey focuses on economic narratives. I should go read his book again (I say "his" because the book is published under the name "Donald").

Also, anybody who's ever worked in a cube knows that corporations tend to be run very badly, if quality of outputs other than wealth for the executives be the criterion. Corporations are also tiny, a few thousand employees at most, by the side of governments, which in an empire of continental scale, like our own, are several orders of magnitude larger. It's no wonder that businessmen (think Hoover) tend to be bad presidents. They aren't equipped to deal with the scope. "Government should be run like a business" is a Big Lie, and one of the stupidest talking points on the face of the earth.

Valhalla's picture
Submitted by Valhalla on

in relation to the frequent talking point about how difficult unions allegedly make it to fire incompetent workers.

I'm not sure how one would go about measuring it, but I've worked in plenty of private, union-less workplaces that had their share of people who were "bad" employees but kept their jobs for a variety of reasons which had nothing to do with performance. In a unionized workplace, the union is a very convenient, single (and simplistic) source that both managers and fellow employees can point to as the problem. I'm not sure it's that non-unionized workplaces are that much better off in that regard, just that the reasons for firing tend to be more varied and sometimes more subtle (eg, bad managers often make for bad employees, but no one ever thinks to locate fault in the managers).

On the other hand, I've had two people I'm close to only able to keep their jobs because their unions (both public employee unions) stepped in to stop arbitrary and stupid attempts to get rid of them.

Aeryl's picture
Submitted by Aeryl on

I work in a small business, that is looking at benefit and pay cuts to generate cash flow.

Not once thinking about cutting or streamlining the incompetents out, though.

My partner works for a very successful HVAC/Environmental cleanup company, and he constantly complains about the level of stupidity and incompetency he has to deal with(which is not something you wanna have to deal with if you are cleaning up, say, asbestos).

Neither of these places are unionized. And we live in an At-Will state, so you can lose your job at any time for any reason. But, neither of these non-union workplaces can find a way to get rid of bad people.

But it's still the unions fault.

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

Corporations are also tiny . . .by the side of governments, which in an empire of continental scale, like our own, are several orders of magnitude larger.

Corporations have a primary directive, monetary profit. In actuality of course, they do other things, like exercise power on the whims of their CEOs, but there's not a lot of balancing of possibly conflicting objectives. In fact, big conglomerates of different business lines tend not to do very well outside of the "defense" contractors, which depend on connections. Governments have a multiplicity of possibly conflicting objectives. Just to name a few: will of the majority vs. protecting the rights of the minority, freedom vs. security, current economic maximizing vs. environmental/health protections, individual freedom vs. economic power. And add to that the fact that government decision-making shouldn't be the hierarchical structure of business.

People are in fact utterly outraged when government is run like a business.

editor_u's picture
Submitted by editor_u on

He says,

I must--persistently and insistently--remind my colleagues, some of whom were also on the goddamned negotiating team, we agreed to the terms and conditions that we love to bitch about.

There are other people who need reminding of this. The press, for example, has this annoying habit (I am certain it's not an intentional thing on their part, CERTAIN (for certain) of that) of referring to contractual obligations (i.e., provisions agreed to by BOTH parties) as "union rules" or "union work rules." As in:

2007 Broadway stagehands strike

The chief sticking points in the negotiations are various union work rules, specifically those which require the league to hire a set number of workers for a specific period (such as during the load-in of a show) whether they need them or not.

Pre-strike article about those negotiations with the stagehands:

The producers say outdated rules for stagehands, who include electricians and carpenters, add unreasonable costs to the capitalization and running budgets of shows. Their major complaint has been that union work-rules force them to employ more workers than they actually need, contributing to the fact that 80% of new shows fail.

1995 N.Y. Times editorial regarding the high cost of Broadway tickets:

But high ticket prices are not only the result of illegal practices. Terrified of the threat of a strike, theater owners have had little incentive to challenge union work rules that drive up the cost of mounting a production. Other parts of the equation include the salaries of big-name stars and high advertising rates.

[Emphasis mine, of course.]

I am quite sorry, or possibly pleased and relieved, that I cannot bring you audio of Michele Norris sincerely uttering that same tiresome phrase. A quick check of NPR's archives suggests that she may not have reported on that story.

So the public comes away from this thinking that those Bad Unions are making things tough for those producer/employers, all of whom just want to put on a show (or, in other businesses, to make widgets, or pilot planes, or teach our children…).

Speaking of Broadway, now that I've used those examples, and intentionally to stray off topic, I must say that I am also in agreement with IOZ on the aesthetic value of the Broadway musical, though I could not come close to expressing my opinion in quite the manner he employs here:

The Tonies are terrible because Broadway, especially The Broadway Musical, is the greatest failure of art and entertainment in the entire world, ever. If forced to choose between spending the rest of my life in a dark auditorium somewhere in the Forties listening to some overamplified and undersupported singer belting gaudy tunes with all the musical complexity of a Duncan Sheik number or spending it chained to a chair with an image of Vin Diesel slumping in his space-throne at the end of The Chronicles of Riddick laser-tattooed onto my retinas while Trout Mask Replica plays unceasingly at 457 dB, then I am taking the latter.

For reasons of full disclosure, I should also say that I have been on the labor side of the table in many New York entertainment union negotiations in the past 25 or 30 years (though I did not participate directly in any of the Broadway talks during that time). What I said above about the value of the Broadway musical is heresy where I come from. I'll temper that a bit, but just a bit, by saying that I'm glad so many of my friends have jobs in the theater and have an easier time paying rent than I do.