May 19, 2020 - Edwin Osorio - 2nd Vice President
On a brisk autumn day in October of 1995 the New York Yankees were within outs of proceeding to their first World Series appearance since 1981. Six months earlier this forecast would have surprised nobody because they arguably had the best team in baseball, especially to their loyal fans in the Bronx. They had the illustrious history that virtually demanded no less of them. They had a potent offense and one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. But the final hit of the game snatched victory from the preordained Yankees. Because of this stunning loss there was a major shakeup in the Yankee front office that resulted in a lot of new faces beginning the 1996 season. This was no surprise to anyone because it is common in the private sector to hold the most senior executive employees responsible when the anticipated outcome is not achieved.
Unlike federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration (SSA), large private sector companies like the New York Yankees hold their management officials to the highest level of accountability. When success is not achieved in accordance with their mission statement, private sector management officials are replaced with dispositive certainty. The rank and file employees are not held accountable because they are simply implementing the strategies that are trickled down. Paradoxically, SSA rank and file employees are performing only as well as artificially limited resources will allow, yet are burdened with a high level of accountability relative to management. The result is low morale, disgruntled employees, and compromised performances that manifest in inefficiencies in the delivery of service by SSA that are mostly predicated on insufficient hiring practices, poor retention of effective labor, and ineffective leadership from management. Any one of these practices would have resulted in the end of an entire management team in the private sector. Instead, managers and supervisors are rewarded for failure while the rank and file employees are bare the consequences in the form of more stringent working conditions that further alienate them. The current union busting climate has made it more difficult for employees to respond adequately.
If SSA was to follow the example of large corporations, it would be “releasing” managers and supervisors from their duties and seeking replacements with visions of innovative ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiencies of SSA. It is a top down accountability scheme that has been in place for the sole purpose of maximizing profits. However, in the realm of SSA, the equivalent to profits and consumer confidence would be the adjudication of claims and the successful administration of the Social Security Trust fund with the ancillary responses to the public’s queries and quandaries. Instead of holding the management officials that have all the control over the implementation and utilization of the resources needed to accomplish the requisite metrics of success, it is the powerless rank in file employees that are held accountable despite lacking any ability to effect policies and procedures.
The idea of running government like a business is nothing new. If it sounds new, it is in part due to the overwhelmingly aggressive determination of our current administration in the White House to rehabilitate federal service by making it easier to terminate federal employees under the guise of being “more efficient and effective in federal service.” This pretense for being more like the private sector is more like a euphemism for getting rid of federal employees indiscriminately and shrinking the government. However, upon further examination this rhetoric does not appear to be congruent with what the administration is really doing. After all, the private sector thrives on independent and motivated individuals and rejects a sycophancy that is submissive to the doctrinal failures. The federal sector and more specifically SSA rewards sycophancy and are empirically averse to independent and motivated employees.
For a little historic perspective: in the infinite wisdom of the Founding Fathers, a tripartite government was constituted for the purpose of creating checks and balances among the three branches of federal government. The efficacy in a tripartite government is in the equally distributed balance of power. The agencies in the Executive Branch like SSA under the Trump Administration have pursued a path of unfettered hegemony usurping the role of labor organizations, thus creating a disparity in power that the agency exploits unceremoniously and unscrupulously. This balance of power does not exist in the unionized portions of the private sector because of its labor organizations posseting the right to strike. This difference ensures that the two competing paradigms are inherently different and cannot be reconciled. To do so would bring perpetual folly and abuse by the stronger party—which is never the employees surrogates.
Like most of the federal government agencies, SSA has with impunity methodically begun the systemic dismantling of the labor unions and all of its achievements over the last 100 years. This is in contrast with the private sector—who are not labor organization apologists— who accept that through labor unions they can often obtain the best workers. Despite being the only true surveilant to ensure that federal agencies do not exploit their employees and live off the largesse of the federal government, labor unions have been forced to essentially sit on the sidelines while the politically motivated Trump Administration became the major catalyst in dismantling the rights and protections of all federal employees. This is in stark contravention of Congress’ approbation for labor unions as an integral part of the federal work force that is necessary, proper, and in the public interest.
One common aspect of the private sector is employees in management trying to distinguish themselves by being unique, creative, and groundbreaking. These are all attributes that SSA management officials avoid like the plague. Unlike the private sector where being an outlier can be rewarding and viewed as being bold and energetic, in the world of SSA where thinking outside the box could be considered defiant and out of step with the principles of the organization, there is no motivation to be innovative. Unfortunately, in the realm of rewards and punishment, the private sector provides clear rewards incentivizing innovation and productive divergence, while the federal sector such as SSA is motivated by mindless and predictable outcomes that require strict adherence to precedent unless it seemingly disadvantages rank and file employees. This only leads to employee consternation and leaves the employee detached and apathetic to their role in the organization.
For this reason, the old axiom that gives birth to this agency doctrine “government needs to be run like a business” is nothing more than an apocryphal visit back to the Gilded Age of the 19th Century when patronage was the currency, and should be avoided at all costs. Through the surreptitious engagement of favoritism, nepotism, and cronyism, SSA management has indoctrinated a culture of sycophants to carry out their destructive edicts obsequiously and faithfully. Moreover, it is these same bureaucracies that insulate many management officials from accountability because they don’t make decisions; they follow tried and supposedly true policies with no need for critical or analytical thinking. It’s the cookie cutter, one size fits all approach. This serves as the ultimate protection for management, shielding them from bad decisions and making them immune to consequences.
So how does this all trickle down to the average SSA bargaining unit employee? As much as there is a push to make the federal sector act more like the private sector, executive’s expediency to insulate them from accountability will always be at the expense of the bargaining unit employee because accountability is not defunct. So when redetermination (REDE) goals are not met, bargaining unit employees are encouraged to work harder; when continuing disability review (CDR) goals are not met, bargaining unit employees are encouraged to work harder; When a field office reception area is full to capacity and the work day is almost over, bargaining unit employees are encouraged to work harder. After all, SSA Commissioner Saul said “SSA employees have more to give.” Point of clarification: encourage is used as a euphemism for extract more from the employees or else.
Inconsistent with a private sector that would simply hire more employees to meet public demand and never risk surrendering to business competitors the opportunity to fulfil the supply and satisfy a demand, SSA readily sacrifices quality control in order to fulfil a political tenet to shrink government. This is always done while perpetuating a facade of quality service. As a result, SSA provides an inferior customer experience because it overextends its employees beyond their capacity at the expense of the public. So where is the similarity to the private sector?
In the old days when unions were in their infancy, they were weak or nonexistent among many trades. Employers could compel workers to work 12-14 hours a day in order to get the work done. Because we now have stronger unions that are founded upon collective bargaining agreements, those days are long gone. In an attempt to go back in time, management tries to extract greater amounts of labor from their employees with little regard for the impact it has on the employees, all the while marginalizing labor unions to facilitate their self-interests; thus, promoting the existential descent in bargaining parity.
The private sector would see this as a failed model and quickly abandon it as a profit losing model. Because the public sector is not profit motivated, it is inherently different from the private sector and ultimately an incompatible juxtaposition with the private sector. The public sector is not profit driven; it is built on the virtue of its citizenry with a mandate to preserve and protect the welfare of all while observing civil liberties. Ironically, this virtue is not extended to the employees. Instead, employees are often subjected to excessive micromanagement in order to compensate for ineffective and often counterproductive leadership.
The lesson that the private sector learned a long time ago and the federal agencies like SSA ostensibly repudiate is that happy employees are productive employees and productive employees are the lifeblood of any organization. SSA is so opposed to this supposition, it has doubled down on its contempt for the union and the bargaining unit employees it represents; they have abandoned the pretense of recognizing the importance of collective bargaining and the legitimacy of the union. In 2019 SSA imposed a collective bargaining agreement that was not collective in nature and consisted of no real bargaining. The agreement provided not a scintilla of benefit or enhanced any existing right or benefit—in the private sector this would be called a lack of consideration rendering a contract unenforceable; however Management pursued successfully myriad degradations to the working conditions of the SSA rank and file through the implementation of a collective bargaining agreement that deteriorated many rights and simply eviscerated others.
So what is the solution? In deference to our Founding Fathers—who believed if men were angels, government would be unnecessary—we must recognize that without checks and balances, SSA will continue to abuse its disparity of power to continually subjugate and exploit the employees. Even though there has been no decrease in productivity in employee’s performance, management has contrived a decrease in its value; without any advocacy of substance from the union maintaining the value of employee’s productivity and contributions, the exploitation will continue. The working relationship between management and the union has always been a shared harmony of interest; the paradigm has been broken. While ideas may be provisional, the importance of the union has never waned. However, management’s newly established contempt for labor unions has rank and file employees disillusioned to the point that they have been detached from the civil pride that has motivated them to serve the public with distinction.
Nothing less than the restoration of a legitimate partnership between the agency and the union predicated upon the agency’s own declared valuation of its employees as its “most valued asset” is mandated; fostering such a prerequisite, the agency will always deem contrary to its self-interest and for this reason requires the improbable abandonment of its inimical disposition towards the union; therefore, congressional intervention must ensue. This should begin with the directive that the agency adopts the virtue of its mission statement towards its own employees. When the agency begins living up to its pretensions and giving meaning to its hollow positions of standing against harassment and all other forms of discrimination in the workplace, it will only then become the model of efficient and effective federal service.