Unions are known for playing hardball politics, but the latest demand by San Francisco teachers has some people scratching their heads.
The San Francisco Chronicle last week reported that the United Educators of San Francisco are demanding “the installation of lids on every toilet, which is not required or recommended by county, state or federal health officials.”
The measure, writes Chronicle education reporter Jill Tucker, is intended to prevent transmission of the coronavirus through droplets and aerosols released when nature calls in school restrooms.
COVID by Toilet?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a trial on a number of levels. Worldwide, nearly two million people have died from (or with) the virus, according to official statistics.
It’s not surprising, then, that the virus has elicited a great deal of worry, some of it prompted by an avalanche of research and media coverage. While there has been some solid journalism and impressive science conducted during the pandemic, there has also been a great deal of conflicting research and sensationalized reports—including news articles that claim COVID-19 could be contracted from toilets.
“Flushing May Release Coronavirus-Containing ‘Toilet Plumes,’ the headline of a June Washington Post article reads.
The New York Times ran a similar story the same day.
Both articles cite the findings of a Yangzhou University scientist who published a paper claiming toilet flushing could force aerosol droplets out of toilets, causing them to linger long enough to be inhaled by occupants.
“Flushing will lift the virus up from the toilet bowl,” Ji-Xiang Wang, a co-author of the study who researches fluids, told the Post. “[Bathroom users] need to close the lid first and then trigger the flushing process.”
Fear of public toilets is nothing new and surprisingly common. In fact, many people reading this article likely know someone who is afraid to use a public toilet for one reason or another. (I know several.) Sometimes the phobia is linked to an inability to “go” in the presence of another person, known as Paruresis or Parcopresis. But, often it stems from a fear of germs. The fear is fed by (and feeds into) urban legends about bathroom health risks.
For example, in the 1980s there were widespread fears that HIV could be transmitted through toilet seats. The myth has been long since debunked, and decades later the New York Times pointed out that during that period, fear of AIDS spread much faster than the viruses that cause it.
While the “COVID toilets” stories published by the Post and Times no doubt generated millions of clicks, both papers neglected to tell readers an important detail: of the tens of millions of COVID cases worldwide, not a single one has been connected to a toilet.
We have to admit that twitter fear-mongers & teachers unions have hit rock bottom 👇 from the SF Chronicle— Dr. Vinay Prasad MD MPH, Associate Professor (@VPrasadMDMPH) January 8, 2021
Next, will unions demand we slaughter a goat before schools can re-open?
NEJM study yesterday shows schools r safe 4 teachers & kids
A Flawed Incentive Structure
One might ask why a teachers union is demanding toilet lids as a condition to returning to the classroom when not a single COVID case worldwide can be traced to a toilet. Perhaps they simply didn’t know, although that’s unlikely. An infectious disease professor points this detail out in the Chronicle’s story on the union negotiations.
But the real question is this: why would they not? It’s worth pointing out that the money is not coming out of the pockets of union members. And as famed economist Milton Friedman once observed, people spend other people’s money differently than their own.
But there’s more than that. It’s important to understand that teachers unions are operating under a unique incentive structure. As the economist Thomas Sowell once observed, it’s not just that the interests of the union don’t align with the students, they often don’t even align with the best interests of teachers.
“First, our teachers unions are not created by teachers. There are people who create unions. And in fact, the interest of the teachers unions can be opposite than those of a teacher,” Sowell said in an interview with the Hoover Institution in July.
“When money is out there and available, you could use that money to raise teacher salaries. That would be good for the teachers, it would be bad for the teachers union. The teachers unions, again, get more dues, if instead of raising the teacher salaries, you create more jobs, more teachers, aides, more counselors, more nurses, more this more that, more bureaucrats in the system.”
All of this is to say that installing toilet lids that don’t actually protect anyone might not help students, it might not even help teachers, but it might benefit the union in ways that are not immediately apparent. (For example, the move could be a simple stall tactic—pardon the pun—to draw out negotiations or a public relations stunt to make it appear the union’s primary concern is safety.)
In any event, if Sowell’s reasoning is correct, it’s quite possible those concessions will serve to advance the goals of the union more than workers (or students). And it’s because of this perverse incentive structure that many economists argue unions tend to undermine the very interests of those who they claim to protect.
“It is altogether probable that even the highest real wages now received by members of strong unions are lower than such wages would have been if the unions and their historic policies had never existed,” the journalist and economics educator Henry Hazlitt observed in The Strike.
In other words, to understand why school districts would spend money on useless toilet lids instead of on students or teachers, look to the flawed incentive structure in place.
It’s a stark contrast to free labor markets, which are based on freedom of association and which empower individuals who are more likely to make rational economic decisions to the benefit of all—instead of flushing resources down the toilet.