Bieber: Privatization doesn’t work

Ron Bieber

It’s an election year, and that means voters are already getting bombarded by TV ads, campaign mailers and phone calls. The flood of information can be overwhelming, but despite all the noise, voters have a serious responsibility to make informed choices this year.

That means asking tough questions, and listening carefully to what candidates say they’ll do in office and holding them accountable after they win.

Six years ago, Republicans swept into Lansing after promising to “make government run like a business.” It was a catchy slogan. The trouble is, we as voters didn’t do such a great job asking hard questions about what running government like a business actually meant.

For Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature, it meant privatizing vital public services in our schools, prisons and a state-run home for veterans.

The goal of privatization, we were told, was to save taxpayers’ money.

The truth is the state’s two biggest experiments with privatization have been huge failures.

First came the prison food contract with Aramark. The trouble started when the Legislature rigged the bidding process by giving Aramark a do-over after its initial bid came in too high, allowing it to low-ball competitors. The state approved Aramark’s contract even though it had a terrible track record — including a prison riot in Kentucky and rampant contract violations in Florida.

Then came a steady stream of horrible news. There were persistent food shortages, maggots repeatedly found in food, drug smuggling, sexual contact with inmates and even a murder-for-hire plot.

Aramark made our prisons more dangerous, and made our corrections officers and communities less safe. After two years, Aramark was eventually replaced by another for-profit company with an even more expensive contract — and without a new bidding process.

What happened at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans was even worse. In 2011, the governor and Legislature privatized 150 nursing assistant jobs and awarded the contract to J2S, a company founded by two brothers — Tim and Chris Frain — who had no background in health care.

The complaints of chronic staff shortages started immediately. One former J2S employee told a local TV station “there definitely were times where a member would sit in their urine or feces for extended periods of time because we were shorthanded.” A scathing report from the auditor general last month found employees routinely failed to respond to alarm checks, and J2S failed to investigate complaints of abuse and neglect.

No senior should live like that, especially not brave men and women who defended our freedom. But instead of holding J2S accountable, the governor is giving it a free pass by allowing the company to keep its taxpayer-funded contract.

The results are clear: Privatization just doesn’t work. Politicians need to understand that government isn’t a business and shouldn’t be run like one. Government should work for we the people.

Unfortunately, Lansing Republicans might not have learned their lesson yet. Right now lawmakers are considering legislation to privatize mental health services, making it harder for people to get access to needed treatments and medications. This would be a big handout to insurance companies, and it’s another privatization disaster waiting to happen.

The election is coming up quick. If we don’t ask the candidates tough questions now, we’ll be stuck with the consequences later. Don’t believe me? Just ask the veterans in Grand Rapids or the citizens of Flint.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.