Photo by @mjb on Flickr.

Unsuck DC Metro uncovered some troubling facts about the way WMATA’s union rules may be encouraging poor escalator performance.

A “pick” system lets escalator mechanics bid on escalators to maintain, with preference by seniority. As a result, some senior mechanics may choose escalators in good working order “so they can slide and and not do anything for the six months it’s under their ‘care,’” as Unsuck put it. When the escalator starts having problems, they can simply pick different escalators.

This system also reduces incentives for more capable mechanics without high seniority to do a good job, since bringing an escalator up to tip top shape will only entice the more senior mechanics to bid to take it away.

Most likely only a few “bad apples” actually slack off so seriously. Most mechanics at Metro probably try to do the best job they can day after day. But at Metro, like in many public agencies, even a small minority of poor employees gives the entire agency a bad reputation, and union rules make it remarkably difficult to fire them.

Union rules also form one of the biggest obstacles, if not the biggest, to removing poorly performing project managers and engineers in DDOT’s engineering department, IPMA, as I recommended. The standard way of laying off people, a Reduction In Force (RIF), requires laying off the newest employees, who are often not the ones that are most problematic.

Terminating individuals for cause takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. DDOT actually did go through some substantial staff cuts and used many tools at its disposal to target the cuts to poor employees rather than just young employees, but in a number of cases they had to take some employees back and pay them years of back salary, further draining limited budgets.

And as we all know, the WTU just elected a new president who ran on a platform of opposing the IMPACT teacher ratings and the contract provisions to fire poorly performing teachers. IMPACT might be imperfect, but overall the new contract got rid of the worst performing teachers. That’s exactly what needs to happen.

Before we all go calling for the elimination of unions, let me emphasize that I believe unions have an important role. The labor market is not fair and doesn’t work on its own. In most economic times, there are more people who want jobs than there are jobs, and that means the equilibrium price for labor in most industries will be the bare subsistence level. That’s not good for society.

Unions like SEIU have worked hard to get health care and decent pay for workers in many fields who would otherwise be dependent on emergency room care, which is far more expensive to society. Companies have far more “market power” in the labor market than individuals do, due to the way individuals have few choices and companies can always hire someone else.

However, many unions, especially public employee unions, also fall into the unfortunate position of fighting against the firing of bad workers. This is not in the best interest of the labor movement generally, since it undermines political support for organized labor and doesn’t actually improve the lot of most workers, But individual unions or workers aren’t focused on that. In at least one recent case, the ATU leadership didn’t want to appeal the firing of one WMATA employee whose infractions had made the press and garnered significant scorn, but the rank and file overrode the recommendation.

This is the fundamental disconnect. A union officially represents the workers, just like a lawyer represents a client, and is supposed to do everything they can for the workers. But they also have powers granted by the law, such as to collect dues from all employees, which means they enjoy privileges granted by the government. The government should only give power if it serves the public interest. Sometimes having a union does serve the public interest, but in this case of firing bad people it does not.

Is it possible to make firing poorly performing union employees easier without throwing out the whole organized labor system? The new Republican majority in the House would surely be interested in curbing some union excesses, while there are plenty of ways the law still doesn’t protect employees trying to organize against retaliation. Could a deal be worked out where layoffs for performance become possible but organizing also becomes more possible?

How could such a layoff work? Off the top of my head, here are some ideas which people surely poke holes in. An agency head could create some ranking, which could include objective criteria (like IMPACT’s) and some subjective criteria (like manager ratings), and announce their intention to lay off a specific number of people by taking the bottom of that ranking. However, they also have to identify an equal number from the second lowest group. In other words, if they want to lay off 10% of people by performance, they have to identify the bottom 10% and also the next lowest 10%.

The union can then challenge any of the choices, but they have to also identify which people from the second group they would remove instead, based on any other alternative but not completely arbitrary rating system. The agency can agree, or can go to arbitration to decide which.

For teachers, for example, if WTU thought IMPACT was lousy and it could come up with a better system, it could use that system to replace some of the teachers rated worst by IMPACT with some of the teachers rated not quite so bad but still not tops. Keeping everyone isn’t an option, and choosing based on whim isn’t either, but there’s room to negotiate the criteria.

Or, perhaps there are other ways to fix this problem. Any ideas? Let’s try to keep the comments from devolving into a shouting match of “Destroy all unions!” “No, keep all unions exactly the same!” Something is broken, but let’s figure out how to fix that one thing instead of pushing for unrealistic and wholesale changes.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.