Public Education Unions vs. Volunteers
For many years I’ve participated as a volunteer at annual beautification days at a public high school near my house. Gradually our efforts have resulted in a campus that is graced with a lovely canopy of trees. What I didn’t realize is these volunteer efforts are endangered by union work rules.
A few years ago at this same school there was a group of volunteer parents who wanted to support the school’s varsity baseball team. The team dugouts were over 30 years old, they were too small, and they needed a lot more than a paint job. These volunteers, including professional masons, carpenters, and construction contractors, using their own money and efforts, supported by the coach and the school principal, did a complete makeover. They expanded the dugouts, pouring concrete, adding cinderblock walls, and extending the roof. The finished product was, if anything, overbuilt. You couldn’t tell where the old dugouts ended and the new expanded ones began. They were perfect. But they violated union rules.
To everyone’s astonishment, the district officials determined these dugouts had to be constructed using district employees. A district crew came out and demolished the upgraded dugouts. Because budget considerations prevented constructing an actual dugout, the existing below-ground sections were filled up, and a set of prefabricated sheds were put in place to serve as the team dugouts. These inferior replacements are literally eyesores – but they comply with union work rules.
This story is not an isolated incident. A recent article in City Journal, “nation’s premier urban-policy magazine,” entitled “No Volunteers, Please, We’re Unionized,” describes the ordeal facing parents in Petaluma, California, who want to volunteer to help at the local elementary schools. Apparently the school district’s contract with the California School Employees Association severely restricts the ability of the school to match volunteers with non-teaching jobs, even if those jobs have been eliminated because of budget cuts.
Here’s an excerpt from the City Journal’s article: “When volunteers began to help answer phones in the office and support the school librarian at Petaluma Junior High School, CSEA Local 212 president Loretta Kruusmagi immediately objected. Representing 350 clerical and janitorial staff in the Petaluma school district, Kruusmagi betrays not the least concern for the kids her union supposedly serves when she glowers: ‘As far as I’m concerned, they never should have started this thing. Noon-duty people —those are instructional assistants. We had all those positions. We don’t have them anymore, but those are our positions. Our stand is you can’t have volunteers, they can’t do our work.'”
This isn’t just a problem being encountered in Petaluma – here’s another excerpt, where a volunteer coordinator who works with schools all over Sonoma County is quoted: “It was an interesting job, she said. ‘But,’ she continued—lowering her voice to a near whisper—’you have to be real careful when you bring in a volunteer to help on certain jobs, that they can’t be seen as taking work from unionized employees.’ She explained that her formula for placing volunteers in needed assignments had to incorporate the type of work and the time commitment. ‘I usually have no problem if I bring someone in for a couple of hours each week,’ she allowed, ‘but I’m pushing it if it moves beyond five hours—even if the volunteer is willing to take longer hours.”
So let’s make sure we’ve got this right: Government employees became unionized, which enabled them to “negotiate” with politicians who were elected with union money. Politicians who owed their political survival to these unions granted unaffordable, unsustainable, over-market wages and compensation to these unionized public employees. Now, because the government agencies are going broke, they have to lay off employees instead of violate union contracts by lowering overall pay and benefits. But because these jobs – which are now vacant – have to be performed by unionized government workers, taxpayer volunteers who are willing to work for free are prevented by law from doing so.