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Labor's backward movement

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By Richard Berman
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

So much for solidarity.

Last Wednesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that union membership in 2012 decreased by 400,000 employees and dropped from 11.8 to 11.3 percent of the workforce.

These baleful numbers aren't exactly a surprise — union membership has declined consistently since its peak of 28 percent in 1954. Private-sector membership is now at a 76-year low, and even public-sector unions shed members last year.

If that weren't bad enough, Americans' approval of the labor movement is also near an all-time-low at just 52 percent, according to Gallup. Perhaps most tellingly, another poll found that only 13 percent wanted their own job to be unionized.

What's wrong with the labor movement? To find the answer, look no further than union officials.

Each election, unions spend hundreds of millions of dollars to elect friendly politicians. In 2012 alone, union bigwigs boasted that they intended to spend more than $400 million of member dues to elect President Obama (no one knows how much they actually spent).

But there is a substantial disconnect between the political inclination of labor leaders and that of their members. Exit polls from 2012 determined that 40 percent of union-household members voted for Romney.

Perhaps that's why a recent poll found that 61 percent of union members think that they shouldn't be forced to contribute their dues money for political purposes. Another poll found that 69 percent of union members want their officials to spend less money on politics and more on protecting members' jobs.

Union leaders also mismanage member assets. Many multi-employer union pension plans are grossly underfunded. Union members have only been able to watch as their leadership turned their nest eggs into IOUs.

And then there's the criminality and corruption. Consider the weekly reports of union embezzlement and cover-ups — most recently with NLRB member Richard Griffin — and the seniority systems that preclude merit raises and merit promotions.

It's no wonder that union membership is steadily decreasing. The number of unionization petitions declined from 4,014 in 2005 to just 2,375 in 2010.

Meanwhile, union leaders pull down record salaries. At a time when their members are losing jobs, the head honchos routinely make two-, three-, or even four-hundred-thousand dollars annually.

But what's the labor movement's ongoing mission? It has already accomplished much of what it was created to do. From worker safety (OSHA) to equal employment (EEOC) to overtime pay and the 40-hour work week (the Department of Labor), the wrongs that labor has historically fought have been righted — in most cases decades ago. At the same time, employers have made great strides to be responsive to their workforce.

The result: Unions offer employees little else but smaller paychecks, coercive politics, strikes, headlines about corruption and embezzlement, and sometimes even job loss.

Organized labor needs a new mission for the 21st century. The last few years have shown labor that its strikes have become irresponsible and that its demands are reckless. Labor leaders like AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka should talk to the 18,000 Hostess employees who lost their jobs after the disastrous Bakers' Union strike last November.

Come to think of it, there are another 400,000 former union members who might have something to say, as well.

Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts.

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