Rules and Standards need Umpires

Houston   Sometimes we find surprising light in dark corners.  At least, that’s how I felt reading a kind of weird conversation between two, seemingly random, people as an op-ed in the New York Times.  It turned out this was a kind of bizarre experiment of sorts from one of their opinion writers, Charlie Warzel, and a member of their editorial board, Sarah Jeong.  Ostensibly, the piece was about the fact that YouTube, in announcing that they were bouncing various videos off of their wildly popular site, owned by Google, was spectacularly unqualified to act as both judge and jury on such matters.

Who could argue?  The interesting part was a remarkably clear explication by Jeong of what she called a classic lesson from law school about the difficulty in determining rules versus standards.  She embarked on this riff noting that the YouTube problem with consistency and response about its new policies was the fact that they were obviously written by lawyers.  Here’s her explication:

Most laws are a mix of rules and standards. Rules are rigid, and the most rigid are referred to as “bright line” rules because they’re so straightforward to interpret: If you steal a loaf of bread, your hand gets chopped off. A standard is more flexible. There are multistep tests and the weighing of various factors. First Amendment law, for instance, has a lot of standards in it. The problem with the bright-line rules is that they often lead to injustice because they’re not flexible enough. On the face of it, it seems like standards should be better, right? But standards are harder to enforce, so you’re more likely to get delays in the courts and inconsistency in decisions. So, the vaguer and more flexible a law is, the more it takes into account the totality of the circumstances, the more it’s actually likely to lead to injustice. Additionally, standards become harder to predict, so there’s a social uncertainty about what’s acceptable and what’s not. There’s a reason the most-watched Supreme Court cases involve standards.

This explanation of “legal theory,” as she called it, was interesting because we had been to a baseball game the Houston Astros, the closest Major League team we could see as our “home” team, and the Baltimore Orioles.  There’s hardly a better example of a rules-and-laws bound environment than baseball.  It works though because it is not only transparent, which something like YouTube is not, because everyone can see the play, but it also has a way to handle the fact that like social media, everyone has an opinion.  What makes it work is not simply the fact that players and coaches participating in the game have been schooled on the rules forever, but the fact that there are umpires.  Like them or not, they are the unquestioned guardians of the sport, and they make immediate decisions, and there is no question that their decisions will prevail, even if questioned later.

There is almost universal agreement that something like YouTube has to be regulated, but sport officiating might be a model worth examining in light of all of this.  There would need to be referees or umpires whose decisions were respected and followed, even if there a review or appeal process.  They would have to be independent and the “rules,” would have to be transparent and well-known to all participants.  The op-ed folks worry about YouTube being  compromised by its “influencers,” but they are still lesser stars in the firmament than sports figures making gazillions, who may get a break from time to time, but no, despite their whining like James Harden and Chris Paul, in a recent series, they still know they have to follow the rules and live by them, if they are going to play ball.

Think about it.  The models available from the sports world might work a lot better than the mess we live with that comes from law schools.

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Janitors Call Me, Jamie, and He Does, Maybe

New Orleans   At the end of a fascinating planning meeting in a living room in Austin during a welcome all day of rain, I thought I would add some fun to the end of this productive session by making a suggestion that when the new organization got up and running with a website, here was a good, effective use of a video.  We then huddled around to enjoy the cute, clever version of “Call Me, Maybe” done by Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) strikers from several elementary schools that I ran yesterday.  One of the participants in the organizing meeting asked if we had seen a similar effort by Houston janitors on strike last month at the JP Morgan Chase building there.  I hadn’t but we found it on Youtube and pulled it up:

In trying to force the company’s hands, the union had produced this video as part of an on-line campaign to support the strikers I learned later.  The hook had been that one of strike leaders had managed to get within earshot of Chase CEO Jamie Dimon at a Washington hearing and he had yelled back, “call my office,” and so they were.  The on-line campaign involved advertisements that SEIU paid for on hundreds of websites in a half-dozen major cities around the country.  I was told that Dimon did finally call the janitors back, though that was harder to clarify from a Google search.  At the end of the line, Houston janitors settled after a 4-week strike involving 3000 janitors for $1 raise over 4-years, so, everything being equal which we all understand it never really is, I would say the strike was successful.

And, the on-line campaign and the video tactic?  Probably less so.  Youtube says there were about 2000 hits on the video over the last 6-weeks.  That’s respectable of course, but nothing to Jamie Dimon and Chase other than an annoyance in all likelihood and hardly a game changer.  The fact that Chase and SEIU Local 1 are both headquartered in Chicago and that all of the major strike targets were big multinational companies with Houston branch offices makes it more likely that this was an old-school union pressure and leverage victory that was impossible without janitors hitting the street in Houston, but likely settled in the way many of these building service strikes are handled.  The video was likely great for morale for the strikers and their supporters and absolutely another valuable arrow in the tactical quiver, but no more than that.

The real value is likely in the shadow of what one sees in the Chicago teachers video as a model for this type of thing.  The teachers have gone from 14000 hits when I first looked 24 hours ago to over 20,000 now as I write this, but what makes both work is the fact that when the viewers like us are reached the strikers are humanized.  In the Chicago case these were elementary school teachers who were obviously united, talented, and the kind of people you would love to have leading your own children in the classroom sending a message not just to Mayor Rahm Emmanuel but to their own students.   You also got the feel that they had done this on their own rather than through some union public relations firm or communications department.

Regardless the teachers – and the janitors – are teaching us and raising the bar.  As organizers we’ve always said that “actions have to be fun,” and both in these videos set out to prove that axiom and put the pressure on at the same time.

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