Unions Use Tragedy For Politics

Steven Greenhut: Public employee unions have been blaming conservative reformers for a couple of tragic suicides, which is reprehensible. A Costa Mesa employee killed himself and the union official blamed layoffs and said: “You can’t do this so fast and think that there’s not going to be repercussions.” This writer essentially blamed the Wisconsin governor for a public employee’s death, as shown by this quote: “Walker’s policies are placing a heavy strain on teachers, says Steve Cupery, the director of the Lakewood UniServ Council, the teachers’ union in Watertown.”

If a private worker committed suicide over tough economic times, what would the lefties say if conservatives blamed President Obama’s economic policies? What if some poor soul killed himself after worrying about the size of the state’s pension liabilities?

Obviously, these deaths are tragic, but it’s disgusting when people use them to advance their political agenda, which is to stop reforms of the retirement system and cutbacks in governments jobs. Actually, those job losses are more the fault of the unions, which won’t allow the kind of reforms necessary to bring costs in line with revenues. I’ve become accustomed to dealing with emotionalism from the union side, which often brings up the 9/11 tragedy to justify high firefighter salaries. But this is worse than usual and a sign of desperation.

Can’t we just discuss the facts rather than use these sort of things to advance selfish political agendas?


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  1. David
    David 18 March, 2011, 18:12

    Wow, you must be kidding. A worker jumps from the roof after a far-right city council unnecessarily lays off half the city staff, destroying people’s jobs for political purposes, and you see absolutely nothing of relevance here. Simply amazing.

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  2. stevefromsacto
    stevefromsacto 19 March, 2011, 10:04

    OK, now I see you’re censoring this blog. My thanks to David for his accurate post and my comments about how right-wing hatred of government and public servants drove the actions that resulted in this tragedy were wiped off the board.

    Well, my friends, you better hire a full-time censor.

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  3. stevefromsacto
    stevefromsacto 19 March, 2011, 10:08

    Here’s a thoughtful piece on why the right-wing zealots in Costa Mesa violated sensible, common business practices. Read and learn:

    The mantra that city government should run more like a business — the most common of Republican refrains — has been taken to a new level in Costa Mesa over the past several months.

    The new city council has done little things, like changing the city manager’s title to “CEO.” And it’s done drastic things, like put in motion a plan to outsource nearly half of the city’s services.

    This business-like approach, the majority of council members say, is the only way to save the city from insolvency.
    But no good business would handle a mass firing in the manner that Costa Mesa has handled the 213-person layoff it began on Thursday, say human resource experts.

    The layoff notice was hastily decided upon, it came as a shock to the workforce and there was little or no one-on-one communication with employees about how and why they were being let go, according to interviews with a number of employees and Councilwoman Wendy Leece, the only council member who voted against the outsourcing plan.

    The layoff notice has already drawn a legal challenge from the city’s employees union. And one Sacramento legislator said he would call hearings if cities continue to have problems with layoffs.

    Handling a layoff in such a way goes against decades of lessons learned in the corporate world, said Kim Parker, who is the executive director of the California Employers Association.

    “The key question is: was there a lot of communication and dialogue or was it a shocker?” Parker said. “If it is a surprise [employees] become very fearful and the there is a shock mentality.”

    Employees were first notified of City Council’s outsourcing plan via a mass email on Friday, February 25. On the following Tuesday, council voted 4-1 to move forward with the plan and issue layoff notices, which are required by law to be given six months in advance of an actual layoff.

    The notices were issued on Thursday. That afternoon Huy Pham, a 29-year-old maintenance worker who was due to be issued a layoff notice, jumped to his death from the roof of the City Hall building.

    Pham’s death has brought intense scrutiny on how the layoff notices were carried out.

    Assemblyman Sandre’ R. Swanson, D-Alameda, chairman of the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, said Friday that if the way layoffs are handled by cities and counties “becomes more and more of a problem” it may be necessary for his committee to hold special hearings on the issue.

    Pham, like many other city employees, was distraught about the possibility of losing his job, said several of this co-workers. “Everybody is depressed about the way this was handled,” said Billy Folsom, a fellow maintenance worker.
    “Everything about it was hasty,” Leece said of the layoff. “[The council majority] had to seize the moment without thinking about the unintended consequences, the fallout.”

    At a press conference Friday, City Manager Tom Hatch said the city would be reviewing the process by which employees were given notice of their layoff. However, he said: “I know in my heart the noticing process was done with care and compassion.”

    Calls to Councilmen Jim Righeimer, Gary Monahan and Stephen Mensinger have gone unreturned.

    Parker said anxious feelings among employees should be expected. However, she said, it is crucial that management make an effort to talk to each employee individually about the layoff in a private setting before the actual notices are given.

    “Absolutely it should be offered,” said Parker of one-on-one communication between supervisor and employee. “It allows company to understand how many people are devastated by the news and will need help. And they need to start the process weeks in advance.”

    Hatch said employees were given one-on-one meetings. “Every department director talked specifically to every employee,” Hatch said. “A lot of planning and details went into the process.”

    But that is not what happened according to employees and labor officials. Employees said they were called into group meetings and given their pink slips and a packet that included a letter from the city that explained the layoff along with an informational booklet.

    “[The maintenance department] met in the maintenance yard, and all of us were told at once,” said Hellen Nenadal, president of the Costa Mesa Employees’ Association, and a co-worker of Pham’s. Pham, who was off work with a broken foot, did not attend the meeting.

    Costa Mesa should have taken lessons from the county, which went through layoffs following the 1994 bankruptcy and, more recently, in 2009, said Lisa Major, an assistant general manager with the Orange County Employees Association.

    “The way that I understand that this was done is completely inconsistent — and that is treating it lightly — with prevailing practices,” said Major, who previously worked as an employee relations manager for the county government’s CEO.

    “A good employer does it a certain way — one of the ways is to make sure the employees are not laid off in a group.”

    When the county did its layoffs, Major said, each employee was told individually by his or her supervisor and a representative from the human resources department. The employees also had the option of having an OCEA representative in the room.

    Parker said handling the situation in this way is vitally important because it provides the employee a private opportunity to ask questions and express emotions that they wouldn’t in a group setting. It also gives the supervisor an opportunity to tell the employee face-to-face that his or her contributions were appreciated and that the layoff is not their fault.

    Without this feedback “their self esteem goes in the toilet,” Parker said. “They think ‘I will not amount to anything.’ Depression sets in, you have mental health issues cropping up.”

    Leece and others interviewed said the highly charged political atmosphere surrounding the layoffs has exacerbated feelings of depression and anxiety among Costa Mesa employees.

    “The employees have been demonized, disrespected and made to feel that it is their fault,” Leece said.
    The other part about this layoff that makes it especially difficult to bear for employees, said Leece and others, is that they thought they had a deal.

    “There is more of a commitment (than in the business world),” Leece said. “We are more of a family — the agreements we had with benefits and salaries were all negotiated in a fair manner.”

    That is the argument made by Stephen Silver, a lawyer representing the Costa Mesa Employees’ Association. Silver has already sent a letter to the city demanding that the city rescind the layoff notices because the planned outsourcing violates the employees’ contract with the city.

    Specifically, Silver said, it violates the contract’s “maintenance of benefits clause,” which states that all terms of conditions of employment are mandatory and must remain in full force and effect for the duration of the contract.
    Silver said he has represented several other public employee groups during layoffs, but has yet to witness something like what Costa Mesa is attempting. “I have never seen a mass layoff like this,” he said. “This is crazy, this is all politics.”

    Ironically, Costa Mesa’s plan comes at a time when Parker says the Great Recession has created a greater sensitivity in the business world to an employee’s emotional needs during layoffs, and sincere efforts to help them with the transition.

    “Anybody who has any smarts and compassion knows that you need to give [employees] every ability to succeed,” Parker said. “You can’t just assume that they will just walk down the street and get another job anytime soon, because they probably won’t.”

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  4. John Seiler
    John Seiler 19 March, 2011, 11:39

    Probably almost everyone reading this blog has had suffered through tough financial times at some time, or several times, including being without work. That includes myself. The Costa Mesa government worker wasn’t the first person to lose his job in the ongoing national Depression. Millions have.

    The worker probably was better off than most. He would have gotten unemployment benefits and been eligible for other government programs, including job retraining. He would have had an inside track to getting another government job, perhaps with another level of government.

    He also could have moved to a state with a better economy, such as North Dakota, which is thriving because its state government taxation and regulation are much less than that in California.

    As someone said, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

    For the government unions to take advantage of this man’s action, and the grief of his family and friends, is reprehensible — but typical.

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  5. John Seiler
    John Seiler 19 March, 2011, 12:15

    The Huffington Post, of all places, had an excellent story on Huy Pham’s suicide: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/19/huy-phams-mourners-strugg_n_837944.html

    Key section:

    “Retired city worker Mike Moran, 57, was among those who showed up at the site on Friday.

    “He worked with Pham for more than four years and said he never saw any signs of depression in his fellow building technician.

    ” ‘ He loved life. He loved his family. I don’t get it’, Moran said.

    “Pham had been off work for three weeks with a broken ankle he suffered while training to fulfill a dream of climbing Mt. Everest, Moran said.

    “Pham also had received his contractor’s license and had future plans of entering the building trade.

    “His city job ‘was just a stepping stone for him,”Moran said. “He was preparing himself to move on.’

    “Moran said he could not imagine Pham’s feelings but speculated that the loss of his job and poor prospects in private industry might have affected him.

    ” ‘ You know, it’s bad times and construction is down and then you get your pink slip … what’s waiting for you, you know?’ Moran asked.

    “However, the Fountain Valley man seemed normal in the days before his death, his brother, John Pham, told the Register.

    ” ‘ When layoffs were coming, he thought he was probably going to be rehired’, by the new contractor, he said.”


    Seiler comment:

    So, Pham had a highly valued skill, with a contractor’s license. He might have been hired back, by a private contractor, to do the same work.

    True, construction is pretty bad right now in the California private sector. But it’s taking off in Texas, North Dakota, and other states.

    He also was employed for at least four years, so he certainly would have gotten generous unemployment benefits for many months.

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  6. stevefromsacto
    stevefromsacto 20 March, 2011, 11:14

    Words have consequences, John. All the hatred preached on this blog and elsewhere about government and public servants pushes ideologues to overreact. Then when bad things happen, the haters refuse to take responsibility.

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  7. Steven Greenhut
    Steven Greenhut 20 March, 2011, 18:17

    We do not “censor” this blog because of opinions. Sometimes comments get caught up and await approval, as with most blogs. Censoring, by the way, only refers to government control of what others write. But, still, we allow all opinions to be posted here — just no libel, cursing, threats, etc.

    The unions have been telling their members that there is a war on against them and have been beating their members into a frenzy, accusing critics of outrageous pay and benefit packages of hating them. For instance, I’ve seen unions tell their members that efforts to reduce pensions going forward are efforts to strip them of existing pension benefits — a lie designed to needlessly upset union members.

    They do this for political purposes. By stevefromsacto’s logic (i.e., others are to blame for the sad actions of individuals), one could argue that the unions are to blame for creating the sense of siege and hysteria. Actually, it just seems to be a tragic event. The unions are using this to stop legitimate criticism of their abuses of the taxpayer. They will use any form of emotionalism to advance their political agenda. Truly despicable, but definitely typical.

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  8. Bret
    Bret 20 March, 2011, 20:27

    Yeah, tragic and sad, but I agree with the original blog. You cannot attribute this to the City Government and really maintain a logical approach. I am a fireman here in SoCal, and of course I will try and do what is reasonable and honorable to maintain my profession and my living, but the bottom line is that if an agency is broke, then they are broke. An item in a store may only cost $5.00 and be a great deal, but if you only have $2.00, it may as well be a $1,000. The Public Workers exist at the mercy of the tax paying citizens.
    Now, that being said, before any City of County Government cuts a dime from Police, Fire, and other ESSENTIAL SERVICES, they had better eliminate ALL SERVICES for illegal aliens.

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  9. stevefromsacto
    stevefromsacto 20 March, 2011, 20:55

    It amazes me that you can take any legitimate argument and turn it so that government is to blame. Anyone who controls a web site or a blog can censor it. To say only government can do so is absurd.

    Same holds with how you blame unions. Costs Mesa cuts half its workforce without even discussing the matter with its employees. Wisconsin takes away a workers’ fundamental right to bargain collectively for wages and working conditions. Michigan wants the authority to unilaterally cancel legitimately bargained labor contracts.

    But to use your logic, none of this is real. The unions are to blame for creating a sense of siege and hysteria. In your view, public employees should just sit back and give up all their rights. They should allow you to kick them in the teeth and say “Yes, sir, may I have another.” They are not really people, just tools that can be used and discarded at the whim of the employer.

    Finally, your using the phrase “legitimate criticism” is laughable. In your view, ANY criticism of unions is legitimate, no matter how unjustified or hateful.

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  10. Rex ther Wonder Dog!
    Rex ther Wonder Dog! 21 March, 2011, 13:08

    For the government unions to take advantage of this man’s action, and the grief of his family and friends, is reprehensible — but typical.

    Good post.

    It is very common-especially with public safety deaths- to use the tragic deaths of one or two to further a political agenda.

    It happens everytime a cop or ff does in the line of duty and it makes me puke to see low life public employees use such incidents to further their own greed.

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  11. Rex ther Wonder Dog!
    Rex ther Wonder Dog! 21 March, 2011, 13:10

    But, still, we allow all opinions to be posted here — just no libel, cursing, threats, etc.

    90% of stevefromsacto’s comments are false, and potentially libelous, yet he puts up his “cut and paste”, book length, talking points posts every chance he gets.

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  12. stevefromsacto
    stevefromsacto 21 March, 2011, 16:35

    Potentially libelous? How about some proof, Rexie boy. Want to sue me, go for it.

    But I do apologize for confusing you with the facts and for making my posts longer than the Glenn Beck sound bytes you’re used to,

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  13. stevefromsacto
    stevefromsacto 21 March, 2011, 16:44

    It is very common-especially with public pensions- to use the excesses of a few to further a political agenda.

    It happens every time someone uncovers an extravagant pension and it makes me puke to see low life right-wing zealots like _______________ (fill in the blank) use such incidents to further their own greed.

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  14. David from Oceanside
    David from Oceanside 21 March, 2011, 18:27

    I have worked in the construction industry since 1978 which is to say I was laid off in the Recessions during the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s. I had a 16 year gig as construction manager with a very large national company end with the sale of the corporation. A few hundred fellow employees and I were all laid off in one clean sweep.

    Lay offs happen in life for most. Government workers will have to wake to this fact. Until now they have had the best of both worlds. The protection of civil service and pay from a union in a monopoly environment. Not bad.

    The gravy train is over however as we have run out of money. First we had the dot com bubble, then the real estate bubble. We are now watching the popping of the government bubble.

    Costa Mesa has moved toward sanity. There are no functions of government that can not be improved with outsourcing. The market is the great equalizer and competition is a very good thing. Costa Mesa exploiting the free market is a sane and progressive move.

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  15. Charles
    Charles 21 March, 2011, 20:18

    Rex says, I will not call him a wonder dog, after all dogs have pride too.

    “It is very common-especially with public safety deaths- to use the tragic deaths of one or two to further a political agenda.”

    Obviously you are exactly what I think you are. I bet almost everyone who reads your posts thinks the same.

    I bet your IQ is around room temperature. That would be about 72. And you hate people who work for a living and have anything.

    I wish your IQ was more like 35. Then you would be unable to type.

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  16. SeeSaw
    SeeSaw 21 March, 2011, 21:46

    Those union leaders who tell the workers that there is an effort ongoing to take away their current pension benefits are correct. The current benefits are most likely in a written contract, ratified between the respective employing entity and covered group. To make changes in that ratified contract without joint agreement, will be deemed illegal, and the perpetrators will most certainly find themselves having to explain their actions in a Court of Law.

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  17. Tylerle13
    Tylerle13 22 March, 2011, 16:30

    From what I have heard on this matter, the employees were informed that the city was going to have to do layoffs months before the layoffs were actually carried out, which I believe is a stipulation of their Union contracts. If the City followed all of the layoff guidelines in their Union agreement, then why are the Unions complaining about “the way the city handled the layoffs”?

    If union employees are unhappy about the way they were fired, shouldnt they be pissed at their Union Representatives for signing them up for such a horrible Termination Process? If having one on one sit down meetings during a mass layoff is something they think should be done, they should have included that in the Union Contract. The Unions basically got to write their own contracts in this state, so its their fault if they didnt include better layoff terms for their members.

    The fact that they are now trying to promote this mans death as a reason that Government Workers should never be subject to downsizing is beyond dispicable. I guess the Unions felt they couldnt let this disaster go to waste. Unfortunately this man made a decision to take his own life, no one encouraged him to take his own life because he was being laid off. The disgusting attempt to link this individuals unfortunate decision to politics has got to be once of the most unethical political ploys I have ever seen.

    I dont know where people are getting this idea that every action taken by an individual must be directly linked to a political ideal, but they need to try to stomach the fact that individual people are responsible for individual actions. Even if people had a 100% approval rating of public employees, the fact that there is not enough money to support all of them for the rest of their lives would not change, so the attempt to tie this event to a political idea is ridiculous. This tragic event should never be bulletin board material for the unions to rally people behind them or to distract from their corrupt actions.

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