The Pension Fund Was Just Sitting There
30 September 2010, 4:45 PM
Gentle Readers who care about library stuff have probably seen this or are deliberately ignoring it after half-a-dozen people sent it, but not all y’all are so much library people, so I may as well rant to you about the NYT article Anger as a Private Company Takes Over Libraries. If you don’t want to click through, essentially there is a company that is working as a hatchet man for cities who want to fire their union librarians (and other library workers). The city has made promises to these people, and doesn’t want to fulfill them, so they hand over the library to this company (Library Systems & Services), then the private company reneges on its promises, then (this is the best part), the city can get control of the library back in three or five years, without all that pension stuff hanging over them. It’s a win-win situation! Except for the workers, of course, who lose.
And integrity, if that matters.
Look, I don’t want to get all whatsit, here, but let’s be clear: lots of times, in lots of places, in lots of the country, management has made deals that say: I’ll give you this much money now, and this much money when you retire. The people who have done the work took the jobs on that understanding: we get this much now, and this much when we retire. Then, when unemployment is high and management thinks they can get away with it, they break that promise.
There’s no real difference here between what the cities are doing to their library workers and a homeowner who agrees to pay a housepainter half up front and half when the painting is done, and when the house is freshly painted, tells the housepainter to fuck off. Oh, there is a difference legally, but not morally.
This isn’t really about libraries. Oh, the David Streitfield of the New York Times seems to think it’s about libraries, but it isn’t. For grocery store workers, poor saps, Shaw’s and the A&P just pulled out of Connecticut, their storefronts being taken over by PriceRight and the Big Y. Union workers getting fired, and even if the new workplace gets organized, everybody has lost their seniority. Their pensions are disrupted, and for some of them, their pensions will just disappear. Yes, it was a promise made as a condition of employment, but nobody says they have to keep that promise.
This isn’t about libraries. It’s about the fundamental relationship of employer to employee, and what is in place to protect the employee from getting squeezed. The answer? Well, the answer for the last hundred years or so has been unions, but this is a smooth move around that. And, frankly, the moves don’t need to be smooth. There’s next to no enforcement of the labor laws, when the actions are in violation, and (as with the case here) there’s often a way to break the promise that doesn’t break the law.
If you have a job working for someone, you can get screwed. You may think your boss would never screw you, but (a) lots of people have been wrong about that before, and (2) your boss may not always have any choice in the matter, or you may walk in to work tomorrow and discover your boss won’t be your boss anymore.
If you have employees, and are not planning to screw them—this is bad for you, too, as when the industry norm is screwing the employees, fulfilling your promises is an added cost that will come out of your pocket. Your competitors aren’t paying that. You may find yourself making the choice between screwing your workers or going under—or selling out to the guys who will screw your workers.
If you have employees and are planning to screw them—then this is bad for you because, frankly, it is bad for people to behave badly. It’s bad for your self. And it will ultimately be bad for you to live in a world with cutthroat and dishonest social norms.
And if you are self-employed, a freelancer, a contractor, any of that stuff—well, almost anything will be bad for you, won’t it? But you should still be outraged, because when you are on your own, you shouldn’t really be on your own. There should be something on your side, whether it’s the law or some institutional protection or just a belief that people shouldn’t break promises.
Why is YHB ranting about this now? Well, other than that the article just came out this week, there’s this: if we don’t rant about this now, when there unemployment is up and jobs are scarce, when employees are at their most vulnerable, we aren’t going to remember to rant about it later, when the shoe is on the other proverbial. And employers will make more promises to pay later.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,