October 11, 2015

Volunteerism Versus Paid Labor for Community Activities and Services

In the Saturday November 21 New York Post , reporter Michelle Malkin writes a scathing op-ed piece on the Service Employees International Union, entitled “The Union That Hates the Boy Scouts.“. The major point of her piece is that the SEIU strongly opposes volunteer work in many communities, because they believe that volunteer work takes paid work away from union members.

Her description of certain union positions rings true to me because I recall that the Stamford Youth Foundation (Stamford, Connecticut) could not staff the variety and volume of after-school activities that it would have liked because union contracts required it to pay every teacher for the extra hours worked after the regular school day. This deeply bothers me.

I am not against labor unions, and I believe they serve a useful purpose in being a check-and-balance on abusive management behavior. However, the notion that volunteerism must be stamped out if there is a worker ready, willing, and able to do the same job for market-rate pay is wrong-headed.

One of the fundamental issues in all societies is the question of when and how much someone should be paid for performing a task. If we believe that every activity that is currently the subject of volunteer work, or perhaps below minimum wage work (like the cutting of a neighbor’s lawn by a 12-year-old wielding a lawn mower) should be converted into unionized, market-rate wage-driven work, we will significantly reduce the number and variety of goods and services we can offer to one another.

The one story in Malkin’s op-ed piece that particularly troubled me was the reference to a complaint by union officials against volunteer firefighters who built sandbag barricades to protect the city from record flooding. Ultimately, the reason governments at all levels are in deep financial trouble is that they have wildly overpaid unionized workers for relatively low-skilled tasks, or for tasks for which there should not have been premium pay. As I have said in previous blogs, I do not blame the unions for trying to get the pay and benefits they received, but I deeply blame the government officials who caved in to these demands.

As a society, we need volunteerism at all levels. There has to be a zone of activities that we will do without expecting to be paid by the recipient of our services. This zone should include character-building community projects by such organizations as the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts, emergency services by first responders and other volunteers in the event of a disaster, and charitable work. If someone wants to donate services, as my daughter does when she performs at senior citizens homes, she should be able to do so. Taken to a logical extreme, the position attributed to SEIU and other unions would suggest that a unionized musician charging the senior citizen home market rates should have the exclusive right to deliver performances to senior citizens. This is an outrageous position, and I hope our government officials never allow it to become the prevailing view.