Pittsburgh, a Pierogi, and You

[Update June 30, 2010: The Pierogi is back.]

The Pittsburgh Pirates seem unusually cursed, among professional sports teams, when it comes to mascots.

By now, the whole world knows that the Pirates have egg on their faces as a result of firing an employee who used to don a pierogi costume -- and who had the bad form to criticize team management in a Facebook status update. Of course, it doesn't take much for a team on its way to an 18th consecutive losing season to screw up.

Here's a quick guide to the conventional wisdom: On the one hand, we have the hapless pierogi (I'll avoid mentioning his name), too foolish and too quick on the keypad to know that you don't run down the boss in public. On the other hand, we have the hapless baseball team, entitled legally to hire and fire pierogi players but too clueless and too mired in its own self-importance to understand that it has completely and utterly lost the trust of this town.

I'm recapping because there is an underappreciated Pittsburgh angle to be played here. The Pierogi Affair reminds us that when push comes to shove, Pittsburgh remains a company town, a 20th century economy looking down the long tunnel at the bright lights of the 21st century.

What I mean is this: The Pirates didn't have to fire the pierogi. The Pirates fired the pierogi because the team wanted to, possibly even because the team felt that it had to fire the pierogi. Why? Because when a pierogi pipes up to criticize the boss and gets away with it, then who knows who will pipe up next. The janitor? One of the groundskeepers? Beer man? And then you have chaos. The hallmark of a well-run organization is discipline. But that isn't all of it.

The Pirates fired the pierogi because the team could. What if Ryan Doumit (he's a catcher for the Pirates) had posted comments critical of the team's management in a Facebook status update? What if, to be clear, Ryan Doumit had said exactly the same things on Facebook that the departed pierogi had said?

That would be extremely poor form on Mr. Doumit's part, to be sure. He'd get a stern talking to from his manager and perhaps from the GM; he might have to sit out a game or two. But would he be fired? That's highly unlikely. It is unlikely partly because even a team as bad as the Pirates has to have a starting catcher, and men of Mr. Doumit's skill aren't hanging around major league ball parks angling for invitations to play. (I'm not picking on Ryan Doumit; you could substitute any Pirates starter here.) Big Ben Roethlisberger did something far worse recently than the pierogi transgression -- by any objective reckoning -- even though he narrowly escaped criminal charges. Ben's fate? A stern talking to. He has to sit out some games. And he is still on the Steelers roster.

My hypothetical critical Doumit wouldn't lose his job for a second reason: Major League Baseball players have standard contract language that permits the team to fire them only if the player shall "fail, refuse or neglect to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship or to keep himself in first-class physical condition or to obey the club's training rules." But under the MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement, the player has the right to appeal any such discipline, etc. etc.

In other words, to fire Ryan Doumit for a Facebook infraction, the Pirates would have to invoke specific contract terms (is Facebook criticism of the team really breaching "standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship?") - and then jump through a lot of hoops to justify the team's position. The missing pierogi? Here today, gone tomorrow.

I'm not shedding tears for the pierogi. I'm only pointing out some basic inequity in the treatment of employees who aren't fortunate enough to have strong contracts behind them. Suppose that the pierogi were married, with a couple of very young kids and a small apartment, and suppose that he dressed up in a pierogi costume on a regular basis for a modest but living wage, enough to keep his family clothed, fed, and housed. And then suppose that the pierogi did something stupid on Facebook and found himself out on the street the very next day.

I am guessing that much of Pittsburgh would react much as it seems to have reacted to the actual incident: Feckless move by the team; thoughtlessness on the part of the employee. But the employee would be well and truly behind an 8-ball in a way that the real pierogi, fortunately, is not. Either way, the employee is in this position because the legal deck is stacked against him. He has no employment contract, and under PA law - and the common law tradition - in that context companies retain essentially unlimited rights to hire and fire at will.

That's not just a 20th century approach; it's a 19th century approach, too. (Before the 19th century, "at will" employment wasn't terribly significant simply because the Industrial Revolution had not yet really gotten rolling, and there were relatively few large companies around that needed to treat humans like chattel.) Does at will employment speak to the 21st century economy? If you're the owner of a business, you might well say that it does, but I'm not so sure. Even so, your best defense is that the 21st century hasn't changed anything fundamental about what worked for business in the 19th century. For the time being, however, n Pittsburgh, the only safe move may be to play it The Company Way.

Bonus video from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying":


5 Responses to "Pittsburgh, a Pierogi, and You"

Ronald Florida said... 6/22/2010 12:26 PM

A minor setback in the burgh's embracing of what I like to call the costumed class. We'll welcome all 4 of our pierogie clad comrades at Anthrocon...especially if they have an in with the KoolAid guy....

Mike Madison said... 6/22/2010 12:31 PM

The costumed class. R. Florida (presumably, the other F. Florida). Brilliant.

MH said... 6/22/2010 8:06 PM

The Atlantic hired the wrong Florida.

MH said... 6/22/2010 8:44 PM

The Atlantic also hired the wrong Sullivan, but I don't have any knowledge of which specific other Sullivan they should have hired.

ChrisP said... 6/23/2010 10:50 PM

Sure, he's back in the fold now. But once upper management finalizes that sourcing contract with Tater, you know who is getting replaced by a samosa first....

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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