VSEA doubles down in spite of a weak hand

The Vermont State Employees Association may be setting itself up for a fall. Or at the very least, a split within its own ranks and among its political supporters.

Last Friday, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith issued a report to Gov. Phil Scott about the prison abuse crisis, and I have to say, it looks like he’s taking this seriously and coming down hard across the board. He wrote of the need for a “culture change” in the Department of Corrections and specific changes in how administrators handle internal wrongdoing and offending personnel. He also called for drug testing for DOC employees, tougher hiring criteria and a more thorough ban on prison personnel having sex with inmates.

The VSEA accused Smith of a “knee-jerk reaction,” which is, um, ironic, don’tcha think, since it’s the VSEA itself whose knee is jerking.

In workplace disputes, labor unions’ first reaction is to protect the interests of its members. There are good and valid reasons for this. But it’s not always the best thing to do — for the health of the organization, the public interest and even the greatest good for union members.

“I think I would characterize [Smith’s report] as an overreach to try to hide from the public the fact that this case is really gross managerial and incompetence,” said VSEA executive director Steve Howard, despite the fact that Smith targeted front-line workers and administration alike. Never have I heard Smith try to blame the scandal solely on VSEA members. Indeed, his quickest and most decisive actions have been aimed at the top ranks of the DOC, not the poor downtrodden wage slaves.

Howard added that “99 percent” of DOC workers are “upstanding” employees. That percentage might be a little high, but let’s take his point at face value. Isn’t it in the interest of the 99 percent to eliminate the bad ones? It’s not only inmates who have been victimized; DOC employees themselves have reported being subject to harassment and retaliation. Shouldn’t Howard be just as quick to protect their interests?

It reminds me of baseball’s steroid era, when the Major League Baseball Players Association did its level best to block any testing regimen for performance-enhancing drugs. The union’s obstructionism likely extended the scandal for years, further tarnishing the image of the game and of all its players, innocent and guilty alike. And the non-users were forced to compete for jobs with those who were artificially inflating their performance. By protecting the cheaters, MLBPA failed in its duty to act on behalf of the vast majority of its members.

Howard alleged that DOC workers had been rebuffed by management when they tried to bring concerns to light. I don’t doubt it, and that’s why Smith wants a culture change in the department. But did the union force the issue at any point? Did it take action to protect members who weren’t getting a fair shake? Did VSEA take its concerns to its political allies in the legislature? Has VSEA given any thought to all of its members who don’t work in DOC and how they are unfairly tarred by association with the miscreants in their union?

The answers to these questions are apparently no, no, no and no.

Howard isn’t doing himself or his union any favors with this kind of balls-to-the-wall obstructionism. In the midst of a devastating scandal, and the questions about whether Vermont is systematically mistreating those charged to its care, the VSEA should think long and hard about singing the usual song. If I were a thoughtful union leader, I’d take a more conciliatory approach. Here, Steve, try this on for size.

“VSEA members are appalled by recent reports of abuse in the corrections system. These abuses have brought harm to our own members as well as the inmates in their charge. We agree with Secretary Smith’s call for a culture change in the Department of Corrections, from the top on down. Our duty, on behalf of our members, includes assuring that their workplaces are safe for workers and inmates alike. We promise to work with Secretary Smith to bring about needed improvements in the DOC, even as we maintain our obligation to act in our members’ best interests.”

Yeah, yeah, notgonnahappen.com. But a guy can dream.

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