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Memo to Teamsters: Park volunteers aren’t scabs

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on July 29, 2010 at 7:46 pm |
July 29, 2010 5:49 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Teamsters Local Union 117, which represents Pierce County’s park maintenance workers, knows one set of rules by heart.

If its leaders think the county is breaking those rules, they know the drill: Parse their contract language. File grievances. Feed unfair labor practices claims into the machinery of the state Public Employment Relations Commission.

They did that this month over perceived contract violations by Pierce County Parks & Recreation.

But there’s a bigger set of rules that involve public goodwill and the devotion of volunteers. The union trampled those rules when it decided to fight the efforts of neighbors who stepped forward to clean up and maintain the Gonyea and Dawson playfields in Parkland and Midland.

Those two parks – and many others – had been all but abandoned by Pierce County as a result of its dire financial crisis. Funding has gotten scarce, and Parks & Recreation has been forced to stop watering grass, picking up trash and operating restrooms at many of its properties.

The neighbors weren’t content to stand by and watch their playfields rot. They took on some of the maintenance work on their own initiative. The Teamsters raised a stink: The work belonged to them, and Parks & Recreation was letting volunteers do it for free.

If the county were awash in money, the complaint might make sense. But Parks & Recreation is barely breathing financially, and the $80,000 the County Council has now allocated to keep Gonyea and Dawson open would be far better spent on properties where neighborhood intervention wasn’t feasible.

The Teamsters may prevail with PERC, but they’ve made themselves look grasping and petty in the eyes of the taxpayers who pay their salaries. Smart generals pick their battles carefully; this was one the union’s leaders shouldn’t have fought.

It makes no sense to treat volunteers like scabs, especially in the middle of a recession that has squeezed public services so severely. One thing that distinguishes the United States from many other countries is the willingness of its citizens to improve their communities without any expectation of payment.

Parks, especially, have long relied on the enthusiasm and devotion of people who love them.

Such events as Parks Appreciation Day, National Trails Day and Washington Coastal Cleanups demonstrate the willingness of citizens to pick up trash, cut down blackberry thickets, restore streams and build infrastructure. After the devastating floods of late 2006, volunteers were crucial to the reconstruction of Mount Rainier’s trails and campsites.

Unions in general get this: They have a strong ethic of volunteerism themselves. But that fact is lost on the public when a county starts closing parks for lack of money, and a union stands between a playfield and its neighbors.

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