- - Friday, October 10, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Well-meaning Americans who want greater federal involvement in their lives are sure the government will do what’s best to protect the public. It’s about trust. But a decision by the Federal Labor Relations Authority — not to be confused with the National Labor Relations Board — illustrates how the first mission of the government is to protect the government.

The authority’s three-member board is commissioned to resolve disputes between the government and public-sector unions. The authority was asked to review a case that dissenting authority member Patrick Pizzella described as “better suited to a reality-TV show produced by the Food Network in conjunction with Animal Planet than for a decision of the Federal Labor Relations Authority.”

Mr. Pizzella’s colorful prose refers to the infestation of rats at a pasta production plant four years ago in Bridgeview, Ill. The filthy creatures had made a happy home for themselves in bags of flour. The infestation was described as “widespread.” A federal inspector was dispatched to investigate, and he looked around and said everything was OK. It wasn’t, and public health was put at risk.

When the company discovered the rats, it shut down the plant for a week to clean up the mess. Apprised of the facts, the Agriculture Department declared the inspector negligent and said he deserved a five-day suspension without pay. This wasn’t much penalty, but it was a slap on the wrist well-deserved.

Not so fast, said the American Federation of Government Employees, which is always intervening in such disputes to make sure public employees are never scolded for poorly done work, even when they do bad work. The union not only persuaded an arbitrator, Robert D. Steinberg, to withdraw the department’s mild sanction, but required it to write a check for back pay, lost benefits and lawyers’ fees. The arbitrator said this was the right thing to do because the inspector was merely incompetent, but not “willfully” so.

Sleeping on the job is OK, apparently, if your snoring doesn’t interfere with the work of others and you don’t mean any harm. “The grievant suffered no significant consequence,” said an outraged Mr. Pizzella, the dissenting member of the authority, “even though his inexcusable negligence could have affected the health of hundreds, if not thousands, of consumers and was directly responsible for idling the plant for more than a week.”

This is good news only for rats, who can feel at ease, burrowed into their sacks of flour with the knowledge (and rats are smart, even if unpopular with most of us) that lazy government inspectors won’t be asked to work harder, which would make life difficult for ambitious rodents. It’s bad news for taxpayers who paid for such foolishness.

Government inspections are required, and the government displaces private organizations that might better certify food safety, under the premise that only the government can be trusted to do the job right. The Agriculture Department tried to do the right thing, making decisions based on what best advances public safety. A majority of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, appointed by President Obama, figured otherwise. Government employees must protect their own. But leaving the rats in charge is bad for everybody’s health.

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