Unions Driven Crazy by Crisis
It has been obvious for quite some time that Big Labor is in crisis. Unions -- especially the private-sector ones -- are in deep trouble. Despite their past prowess in electing politicians who would do their bidding (i.e., leftist Democrats), in recent elections at the state level that prowess has been declining. For example, unions were unable to stop right-to-work legislation from passing in Indiana and (stunningly) in Michigan, and they could not stop the reforms in Wisconsin.
Moreover, labor union membership (as a percent of all labor) has been steadily dropping for decades, hitting an all-time low of 11.3% last year, the lowest in almost a century. It is even lower than that in private industry.
A recent story reports that in a recent Big Labor convention, even Richard Trumka -- head of the AFL-CIO and all-around Stalinist fossil -- himself called the situation in which Big Labor finds itself a full-blown crisis.
This crisis is apt to get worse, as ObamaCare (which passed with massive union support) starts costing hundreds of thousands, their preferred health insurance, and their full-time employment (as it already is beginning to do).
So Trumka and his pet left-wing "community advocacy" group, "Working America," have rammed through the convention a resolution that will allow all people in the country to join the AFL-CIO, whether or not they work for a business with an AFL-CIO union contract -- indeed, whether or not they work at all. The stated intention is to turn the so-called labor organization into a "big tent" that will reach out to student groups, civil rights organizations, leftist organizing groups such as MoveOn, and environmentalist organizations such as the Sierra Club.
Trumka denied that this move is aimed at increasing the declining dues contributions -- he was shocked at the very suggestion! -- but instead "so we can together make all working peoples' lives better." Right -- by allowing non-workers to join! Karen Nussbaum, Working America's executive director, chimed in that especially welcome would be workers "who have been laid off or who voted to unionize in losing union elections at their work sites."
The move to expand the AFL-CIO is particularly aimed at including "worker centers" -- that is, the activist groups that have been organizing (or trying to organize) strikes among food handlers at chain restaurants and other low-wage groups.
The worker centers are especially tempting as a Big Labor acquisition. As another report notes, these groups are legally structured as charitable nonprofits and are thus exempt from the National Labor Relations Act. In 2006, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that worker centers are exempt from the rules governing unions, because while these organizations picket, stage protests, and conduct media campaigns against various companies, demanding high wages for those workers, they don't actually negotiate. They just demand!
So these organizations get to act allegedly "on behalf of" the workers in a firm even though they never get close to signing up the 30% of that firm's employees required by law to call for an election to unionize it. For example, while "OUR Walmart" organized strikes against Walmart recently, in fact only a risible 50 of the company's 1.3 million employees joined the action.
Moreover, because of their nonprofit/charitable organizational structure, these groups are likewise exempt from the requirements for financial transparency that unions face under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. How very convenient.
The AFL-CIO notes that about 230 of these "worker center" groups now exist, so bringing them into the fold would seem advantageous.
Now, some labor leaders at the convention expressed reservations at the proposal. For example, Lou Paulson (head of the California Professional Firefighters) expressed the fear that including a hoard of outsiders might threaten the existing sweet deals the unions have negotiated. As he put it, "[w]e are concerned as we move forward so we don't undermine the work we have already done."
And some of the leaders at the convention worried that opening up membership to leftist activist groups will lead the labor organization into political causes that don't really involve workers' concerns. As Harold Schaitberger (head of the International Association of Fire Fighters) put it, "... this is the American Federation of Labor. We are supposed to be representing workers and workers' interests. ... We [should not] be the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations."
But the proposal passed overwhelmingly.
The old saw has it that a sign of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, hoping for a different result. If that is so, the AFL-CIO is definitely crazy. It hopes that by becoming even more a tool of the left, it will reverse its losses, which have been caused in great measure by its past alliance with the left.
It never seems to occur to this fast-fading special interest group that what is needed is a way not to erase its identity, but to reform it. The reason union membership is shrinking is its own corrupt structure and asinine actions.
Here are a few reforms that would help Big Labor.
First, admit that just as too many corporate executives are paid excessively, so are too many union executives. A recent piece makes this point clearly. The story reports that nearly 430 labor union bosses are getting over $250,000 a year. The 100 highest-paid bosses collectively pocket over $52 million a year in salaries alone -- not counting health and retirement benefits.
For instance, just looking at AFL-CIO affiliated unions, DeMaurice Smith, head of Professional Athletes, Federated, pulls down a whopping $2,550,046 in salary. (Ira Fishman, the union's managing director, receives $1,156,652). Gerald McEntee, head of the State, County & Municipal Employees union, gets an outrageous $1,024,980. Newton Jones, head of the Boilermakers union, gets a hefty $729,630. And Robert Scardeletti, head of the Transportation Communications union, pulls down a tidy $630,053.
Cap all union officials' income at three times the average blue-collar worker's salary.
Second, break out of the existing Democratic Party coalition. Be neutral. Upwards of 40% of union workers vote Republican in most elections, so be bipartisan.
Especially critical is that union bosses finally get it through their thick skulls that the environmentalist groups are devout enemies of workers. (Inviting the environmentalist groups to join the AFL-CIO is like inviting the foxes to join the International Brotherhood of Chickens.)
Had the AFL-CIO and other top Big Labor officials called the White House before the last election and told Obama in blunt terms that unless he approved the Keystone XL pipeline immediately, they would switch their support to Romney, we would have the pipeline today, and along with it perhaps a quarter of a million more blue-collar jobs. Either Obama would have caved (which, as Putin can tell you, Obama does easily), or a President Romney would have approved it.
Finally, Big Labor needs to put aside coercion of workers as its preferred tool. It should not oppose, but instead actually support right-to-work laws. Entice new members by offering a better service, and by working with businesses to increase the available work, rather than holding a gun to their heads.
Gary Jason is a philosopher and a senior editor of Liberty. He is the author of Dangerous Thoughts, as well as the forthcoming Philosophic Thoughts.