making local government more ethical

Do Public Service Unions Share the Obligations of Their Members?

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an article based on a long-term investigation of group homes for the developmentally disabled in New York state. It found that "in hundreds of cases reviewed by The Times, employees who sexually abused, beat or taunted residents were rarely fired, even after repeated offenses and, in many cases, were simply transferred to other group homes run by the state." It sounds as if officials were following the Catholic Church's handling of its abuse cases.

How did this happen? Although the state agencies in charge did very little investigating and showed very little transparency, the unions were also major contributors to the problem. The question I want to consider here is, Do public service unions share the obligations of their members? Are they parties to government ethics, or do they somehow stand outside of it?

In this situation, the union contested almost every abuse charge filed against its members, leading to compromises that almost never including firing or even suspension. That is why so many employees were simply moved to another group home.

An official likens the union's role to that of a public defender, and blames state law for giving the union "an absolute duty to represent" union members charged with abuse. And, apparently, to represent them zealously.

Can a public service union have an absolute duty? Public servants can't, because public servants have a duty to the public interest. The public interest here is to prevent any abusing government employee from being in a position to abuse others. When such an employee has misused his position, as in these cases, that employee's rights are not the same as in a regular personnel matter. Certainly the union may make sure all the facts are considered, but when it comes to resolving the matter, I believe that they should not demand that the employee be moved to a job where the same abuse can occur.

I think that public service unions share their members' duty to serve the public interest. Therefore, they should balance their duty to defend government employees against this duty to serve the public interest. They should recognize their members' duties when they are defending their members. They cannot ask for anything their members cannot ask for.

The union official said, “When we know the person is guilty, we try to convince the person to get out of it by resigning. But if the person decides to go forward, we have to do our best job.” Its best job for whom? Since these are not criminal proceedings, there is no requirement to zealously defend the accused. Perhaps the union does not realize this. Many lawyers do not, so I would assume that this group includes the union's lawyers (see my blog post on government attorneys and zealousness). Someone must tell them they have no such obligation.

The union's obligations to the public are even stronger in developmental disability matters, because most of the victims are not in a position to defend themselves, and many of them do not have families actively involved in their lives. Without a prosecutor, there is only the agency and the union to protect the disabled.

The union also has a problem with transparency. The union said "it was against their policy to talk publicly about personnel matters." It is not a personnel matter that the union is demanding that its members be moved to a place where they can abuse other vulnerable people. The union should change its rules and talk publicly about these matters without getting into the details of each employee's conduct.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics