A Little Less Tilt on the Union Playing Field

Perhaps there is hope that the winds are changing (too slowly, of course) in Providence Journal reporter Steve Peoples’ story on the RI Ethics Commission’s movement toward a decision that would expand the prohibitions against union members’ participation, as public officials, in matters pertaining to other locals under the same umbrella organizations. A 2008 advisory opinion from the Commission provides a good example:

The Petitioner, Vice Chairperson of the Narragansett School Committee, a municipal elected position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether she may participate in subcommittee negotiations with the bargaining unit of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Education Association, to negotiate the Narragansett teachers’ union contract, given that she is a member of the Professional Staff Association at the Community College of Rhode Island, which is also represented by the National Education Association.

Heretofore, in the consensus view of 31 opinions since 1995, according to RI Ethics Commission staff lawyer Esme DeVault, the answer has been “go ahead,” but would become, under the proposed change, “better not.” Hopefully, the guardians of Rhode Island’s public trust have caught on that unions are organizational structures, not vague clubs entailing mutual interests. Imagine the outcry from the usual suspects with union affiliations if a local manager of (say) a CVS were to involve himself as a public official in the affairs of a different CVS store in his hometown.
One option for resolving conflicts of interest that ought to be on the table, but isn’t, is for those public officials to quit their unions without losing their jobs. Rhode Island is like one of those games in which two knobs tilt a maze through which the player must work a marble, only the knobs only change the degree to which the board tilts toward the union hole — never away.

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