‘Snowmageddon’ showed risks of public sector union abuse

President Franklin Roosevelt, otherwise a staunch organized labor advocate, warned in 1937 of the dangers of allowing public-sector employees to form unions to bargain collectively.

“The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” because, “[a] strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it is unthinkable and intolerable,” Roosevelt said.

And, he may have added, dangerous, as demonstrated by the blizzardgate drama that recently unfolded in New York City. After a massive Christmas weekend snowstorm, reports emerged that some NYC sanitation workers deliberately sabotaged the road-clearing operation as part of a labor protest.

City Councilman Dan Halloran, a Queens Republican, was visited by sanitation workers who confessed the plot, as reported by the New York Post.

Harry Nespoli, head of New York City’s sanitation union, has denied the rumors. Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn has urged “all members of the public, most especially city employees, to call us with any information about this matter or with any provable information about deliberate inaction or wrongdoing relating to the snowstorm.”

CNN reports that investigators are even “looking into a report that four sanitation supervisors assigned to clean up after last week’s monster blizzard instead bought beer and sat in their car.”

Also fishy: Between 10 and 12 percent of the sanitation department’s work force called in sick in the days immediately following the blizzard, far above the average sick leave of 2 to 4 percent, according to Halloran.

A blizzard in even the best of times is dangerous enough — add to an exceptionally heavy storm an exceptionally inadequate public-service response, and you have a prescription for disaster. The storm generated an astonishing 49,478 calls to 911, the sixth-largest 911 surge in the city’s history.

Unfortunately, the snow-packed streets proved an impediment to many an emergency vehicle. To cite but one sad result, a Brooklyn woman in labor waited over nine hours for her ambulance. Her baby did not survive the wait.

And for what, if the ugly rumors are true, did this baby die? The sanitation department has cut some 400 jobs in the last two years as the city has struggled to come to grips with its budget crisis. Other sanitation workers have seen their salaries frozen or cut.

For this reason, it is alleged, sanitation workers sabotaged the cleanup by, among other methods “keeping plows slightly higher than the roadways and skipping over streets along their routes,” according to sources cited in the New York Post, all in an effort to both pad their time clocks and protest the city’s painful budget decisions (city sanitation workers can earn up to $67,141 per year, not counting benefit packages).

If true, what we have seen in New York is a massive betrayal of the public trust. When public employees unionize, they are certainly more likely to consider strikes and other forms of labor protest when dissatisfied. When they do, they rob the public treasury while putting us all in danger — which is exactly what FDR was afraid of.

Terrence Scanlon is president of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C.

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