Wednesday, February 15, 2006

They work outside in the middle of February at poverty-level wages. They don’t have health benefits or regular hours. Their pay is docked for taking bathroom breaks. And they have no one to speak up for their needs.

Ask a labor leader if these workers are in desperate need of a union. Then see if he’d like to revise his thought when he learns they’re employees of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

With a ringing endorsement from AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney, the Carpenters have taken to hiring the homeless to picket construction sites. Needless to say, there’s no health care or pension plan contributions for these folks.

In Las Vegas, the temp workers hired by the United Food and Commercial Workers union to protest outside Wal-Mart were paid a grand total of $6 an hour. The union was generous enough to cover bathroom breaks, but in the middle of a scorching desert summer with picketers dropping out from the heat, perhaps these part-time employees would have preferred health care.

The union’s attack on Wal-Mart includes the usual gripes about the so-called wage gap between corporate executives and hourly workers. But in 2004, United Food and Commercial Workers paid its former president more than $700,000. Apparently, unions are willing to pay top dollar—with dues from grocery store cashiers—to construct their glass houses.

Speaking of glass houses, the AFL-CIO recently took out a $25 million loan to spruce up its lavish headquarters across from the White House. Regrettably, a quarter of the labor federation’s staff won’t be around to enjoy it. In May, the AFL-CIO announced that it was “defunding” their positions.

Remember that the next time unions run up a company’s labor costs and then complain about the decision to lay off workers.

At least unions have moved beyond the days of rampant corruption, right? Not exactly. In 2005 alone, federal racketeering investigations resulted in 196 convictions against union officials and staff, as well as $187 million in fines. The feds recently filed a case against the International Longshoreman’s Association based on “decades of evidence relating to corruption and organized crime influence within the union.” Marlon Brando may have passed away, but criminal activity on the waterfront has not.

Last year, several major unions split off from the AFL-CIO. The dispute wasn’t about cleaning this dirty house. One camp wanted to spend the dues of its members on politics. (Unions spent nearly a billion dollars on the 2004 election, most of it to elect Democrats, even though approximately 40 percent of union members vote for Republicans.) The other camp wanted to spend more on organizing new workers.

“Organizing” no longer means holding secret-ballot elections. The president of Unite Here, which has more than 400,000 unionized workers, states simply: “there’s no reason to subject the workers to an election.” If only Fidel Castro were so succinct. Unions say they organize three to four times as many workers through “card check” campaigns as through secret-ballot elections. Union representatives cajole, harass and intimidate workers to sign cards. As soon as half of them sign a card, all of them start paying the union to keep their jobs. More than 500,000 newly unionized workers began funding labor leaders’ expense accounts in the last two years — most of them without having the opportunity to vote on this hijacking.

Despite the anti-democratictendencies,the hypocrisy, the corruption and the political machinations of their leaders, unions remain remarkably popular. The public favors unions over businesses 52 percent to 34 percent in labor disputes. And according to Gallup, a majority of people still believe that unions help the businesses they organize.

Tell that to Delphi. Tell that to Bethlehem Steel. Tell that to many major airlines. These titans of American industry all went bankrupt, largely because union bosses were unwilling to back off from unsustainable labor contracts.

American workers have been victimized one too many times by union executives. It’s time for American workers to ask if they’re getting their money’s worth.

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

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