Top 5 Union Work Controversies

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Government work rules restrict what public employees can do, often in the name of safety. But critics say the rules have, over the years, been manipulated for political ends by bureaucrats and unions. Sometimes, the rules restrict public employees so much that they put lives in danger.

From an incident in California in which police and firefighters watched as a man drowned himself, to a public school teacher in Texas who stood by as one of his pupils was beaten up by another student, government and union work policies have had tragic consequences. takes a look at five of the most serious cases.

1) Firefighters Not Allowed to Save Drowning Man On Memorial Day -- A man drowned himself in shallow water in the San Francisco Bay in front of dozens of onlookers -- including on-duty police and firemen.

They could do nothing but watch the drowning, because their department's work rules forbade them to attempt water rescues without specific training that was no longer provided.

The firefighters say they wish they had been allowed to enter the water.

“Every one of our members who was on that scene wishes that the policy would have allowed them to do something,” the union President said at the time.

After the man was dead, a young woman -- not a city employee -- swam out and pulled him back to shore.

Fire officials said that they have already repealed the policy in response, which had been created by both management and the union in March 2009 in response to budget cuts.

2) A $2,500 Fine for Reporting a Safety Violation -- Are you in a union? Watch out before you report a safety hazard at work.

Mark Overton, a construction foreman working on the Taum Sauk reservoir in Missouri, noticed a safety issue: A concrete-pouring machine was not properly stabilized – and was at risk of falling over.

Following the company’s policy, he notified management. The problem was corrected, and the worker who was found responsible was given a three day suspension from the company.

But the punished worker was also a union member. So the union accused Overton of “gross disloyalty” and “conduct unbecoming a union member” and fined him $2,500. Overton either had to pay, they said, or stop working at the company.

This April, a judge said that the union’s fine was perfectly legal.

The union that issued the fine -- IUOE Local 513 -- did not respond to e-mails and calls from But some labor lawyers defended the concept of “disloyalty” fines.

“The union wants solidarity among employees and supervisors,” Boston University Professor and labor law expert Michael Harper told

3) $388,860 to Fire a Teacher -- Wisconsin teacher Bob Zellner was caught viewing pornography on a school computer, and the school board voted 6-0 to fire him.

“This issue boiled down to the basic requirement and the expectation we have that people will not access pornography sites from our school computers. Period.” Cedarburg school board member Kevin Kennedy told

But before a union member can be fired, the case must go before an arbitration panel. The arbitrator acknowledged that computer logs proved the teacher had viewed porn on the computer – but ruled that it did not give “just cause” to fire the teacher.

The panel ordered the school “to re-instate the [teacher,] … to reduce the [teacher’s] discipline to a written reprimand and … to make the [teacher] whole for all lost wages.”

The school appealed, and got the right to fire Zellner – but only after three years of legal battles that cost the district $388,860, school superintendent Daryl Herrick told

“The Union legal team went out of their collective way to seemingly try to cost the District as much money as possible in legal fees, depositions, etc,” Kennedy said.

4) Don’t defend students -- In Dallas, a math teacher simply looked on as one of his pupils was repeatedly punched in the face by another boy in his classroom. The union defended the teacher's inaction, saying he was following protocol and staying safe.

“In today’s society, which is a violent society, you do not touch the student,” Rena Honea, the President of the teachers’ union Alliance-AFT, told Fox News 4 in Dallas. “I believe that that is for the safety of, number one, the students -- but [also] for the individual teacher as well.”

See video here.

5) No volunteers allowed -- Many towns around America rely entirely on volunteer firefighters. However, in some California cities, firefighters’ unions have completely driven out volunteers.

“300 homes burned down [in my area] in a 2003 wildfire. After the fire, I tried to volunteer to help,” Richard Rider, who runs the group “San Diego Tax Watchers,” told “But they will not allow volunteers to fight fires.”

San Diego Firefighters Union spokesman confirmed that, but said it was for safety reasons.

“We're a professional organization that has specially trained and certified people. It costs more -- but what is a life worth?”

But Rider said that not allowing volunteers to supplement professional crews costs lives.

“The national response time is 5 minutes, and we don't meet that here in San Diego. If we had volunteer firefighters on call, response times would be faster.”