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Collective bargaining via union representation is a right that deserves protection, but the value of that right is often undermined by union officials because the law empowers them to do so. In a case decided in September, however, a court confirmed that a union cannot force itself on an employer without worker support (and workers must file a request with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)).

Almost ten years ago, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) insinuated itself as representing the employees of Professional Janitorial Service (PJS). The business insisted on a vote of its employees by secret ballot. Fair enough, right? That much is consistent with law and the administrative rules of the NLRB (see the link above). Had I worked for the business, its demand for a secret-ballot vote would have earned my respect. At that point, however, SEIU turned to questionable tactics:

Unions win such elections more often than not, but the SEIU did not want to leave it to chance. So it retaliated against the company by libeling it with false accusations about illegal labor practices and overtime violations.

The SEIU claimed that Professional fired staff for trying to unionize, and had forced others to work off the books. Both allegations were dismissed as unfounded — lies, in other words — by the Labor Department.

The union’s libel was part of a broader campaign to drive Professional out of business unless it surrendered to union demands. Behind the scenes, the SEIU used its political connections to steer contracts away from the company. Emails showed SEIU officials electronically high-fiving each other every time Professional lost a contract.

It took almost a decade, but PJS recently emerged victorious in its legal battle with SEIU. A jury in Houston ruled that SEIU defamed PJS, awarding the business a judgement of $5.3 million for damages. This article reports that SEIU kept a “campaign manual” that it relied upon in it’s effort to “kill PJS”, as they so delicately put it. PJS isn’t done yet:

In a statement, PJS added that they ‘will now ask local prosecutors to investigate apparent perjury by union officials and an attorney who testified in the trial, and will increase its efforts with state legislators to remove the SEIU from eligibility in state-provided union dues collection programs.’

SEIU has a long history of corruption, so it’s great to see the union’s tactics exposed before a jury. Apparently, too many employers have settled out of court, allowing SEIU to force its way into their businesses without a fair process, and those businesses have taken undeserved hits to their reputations along the way.

What incentives motivate such aggressive tactics? They undoubtedly reflect the value a union organization can capture through exclusive representation of workers and mandatory payment of dues. That is the general theme of “Unelected Unions: Why Workers Should Be Allowed to Choose Their Representatives“, by James Sherk. Once a workplace is successfully unionized, the union not only holds a monopoly on the supply of labor to the business; the government also grants to the union a monopoly over the services it provides to workers via exclusive representation. The workers are a captive market, short of a difficult and risky (for individual workers) decertification process.

That latter form of monopoly power, enforced by legal rules and court precedent, creates a severe principal-agent problem in union representation of workers. Union officials (the agents) have the incentives and power to capture excessive value from the workers they represent (the principles). This value, and historically questionable union financial reporting, has often made union activity a magnet for organized crime elements. This NPR story demonstrates the widespread nature of union corruption. An article about labor corruption by James B. Jacobs describes several common forms of labor racketeering:

Organized crime bosses exploit unions and union members through alliances with corrupted or intimidated union officials…. In return, union officials provide mobsters access to the union treasury, pension and welfare funds, no-show jobs with the union, and support in establishing and enforcing employer cartels…. Some organized crime members have held formal union office…. In addition, of course, corrupt union officials, whether or not connected to organized crime figures, engage in ‘ordinary’ organizational corruption, such as misappropriation of funds. The most distinctive form of corruption by union officials is taking employers’ bribes to ignore violations of the collective bargaining contract, or even to allow employer to operate nonunion shops….

Sterk and Jacobs both emphasize the potential that worker choice over their representation has for cleaning up union corruption. Here is an excerpt from Sterk’s conclusion:

Congress and state legislatures should require unions to run for re-election, or allow workers to designate their own bargaining representative. Workers should not be forced to accept a union’s services.

The right of workers to control their representation was at the heart of PJS’s original insistence on a worker vote, by secret ballot, over whether they desired representation by SEIU. And SEIU’s underhanded tactics illustrate the importance of giving workers strong control over their unions from the start. While mechanisms creating greater worker choice and control might not be foolproof, it is more likely to minimize union corruption and to maximize the incentives of union officials to truly promote the interests of their workers.