Collective Bargaining and Social-Worker Abuse

Footing the bill for inflated government benefits is painful for taxpayers, but it is only a financial loss. A deeper problem with government unions is their role in defending indefensible employees.

Government unions insist on contracts that make it next to impossible to lay off workers for poor performance. That makes sense from the union’s perspective — it eliminates a source of stress for their members. Who wouldn’t want a guarantee they will keep their job? But this job security hurts those who rely on government services.

The New York Times recently ran a chilling expose documenting abuse in New York houses for the mentally disabled. Most social workers care deeply for those they care for. Unfortunately, some do not. The government has documented cases of social workers physically and/or sexually abusing the mentally disabled they care for. This abuse includes punching, beating, and throwing the disabled against walls. But the government rarely fires abusive workers — usually they stay on the job or are transferred to another institution.


The New York Times explains that “in 25 percent of the cases involving physical, sexual or psychological abuse, the state employees were transferred to other homes. The state initiated termination proceedings in 129 of the [399] cases reviewed but succeeded in just 30 of them, in large part because the workers’ union, the Civil Service Employees Association, aggressively resisted firings in almost every case.”

Unions leaders are not evil. They do not protect physically and sexually abusive employees because they want to. They protect them because collective bargaining means they have to.

Under collective bargaining, unions represent every employee in their unit — whether the workers like it or not. With this power comes legal responsibility, the “duty of fair representation.” Unions have to treat everyone they represent equally. If they negotiate near-ironclad job protections for good employees, then they negotiate it for bad ones too — even those who beat the mentally disabled.

Government should serve the public, not the other way around. Government managers need the authority to remove employees who are incompetent or worse. Collective bargaining prevents that — another reason collective bargaining in government should go.

James Sherk is senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation.

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