Opinion: UAW strike shows union's coercion and corruption go hand-in-hand

Mark Mix
Union members picket Sept. 16 outside a General Motors facility in Langhorne, Pa.

The unfolding corruption scandal that has engulfed numerous top officials at the UAW is only the latest and a particularly blatant demonstration of an indisputable fact: Union officials frequently wield their government granted power to benefit themselves even at the expense of the rank-and-file workers they claim to represent.

Is the ongoing strike against GM another such an example? GM workers have good reason to think it may be.

The strike timing conveniently diverts the discussion away from the fact that in late August the embezzlement and corruption investigation burst into the very highest office of the UAW when federal agents raided the home of current UAW president Gary Jones, as well as the home of his immediate predecessor Dennis Williams. According to Detroit News reports, FBI officials found “‘wads’ of cash and files that could bolster federal investigations into UAW leaders spending dues paid by blue-collar workers on personal luxuries, vacations and private villas in Palm Springs, California.”

More:Feds execute raids on UAW leaders in four states, seize cash and files

Just days before the strike launched in September, federal prosecutors unsealed a 40-page criminal complaint detailing “an embezzlement scheme whereby UAW officials hid their personal use of UAW money without any legitimate union business purpose.”

The Detroit News reported that the two union bosses identified in the complaint itself only as UAW Officials A and B are (guess who) Gary Jones and Dennis Williams.

United Auto Workers President Gary Jones

The strike also conveniently deflects attention away from another aspect of the UAW corruption scandal: The investigation started when it became clear that Fiat-Chrysler executives were encouraging UAW contract negotiators to pilfer worker training funds, allegedly so the union would go easy on them in negotiations.

UAW officials continue to insist its last contract negotiations weren’t undermined by those bribes, but how could current union officials know that for sure if they didn’t know about them at the time? And more importantly, how can a member trust that today UAW officials are telling them the truth?

Selling rank-and-file workers on the strike’s resolution will be difficult for the enfeebled UAW hierarchy, but perhaps if the strike is long and painful enough for workers reduced to collecting $250 per week in union “strike pay” they will accept whatever contract UAW officials place in front of them and believe them when they say it represents a win.

That the fund for such strike pay was tapped into recently by UAW officials to build a luxury lakeside cabin for the embattled Williams speaks to how the corruption touches every aspect of the strike.

Greed is the obvious explanation for UAW officials’ corruption and self-dealing, but simply pinning the corruption on an ever-growing pile of bad apples loses sight of how federal labor law hands union officials the power necessary to put their personal interests ahead of rank-and-file workers.

The fact is, all unionized workers at GM and other UAW-unionized workplaces are required by federal law to accept union officials’ monopoly representation, even if they oppose it and believe it harms their interests. It is this fundamentally coercive aspect of federal law that puts union officials in a position where they think they can live large at the expense of rank-and-file members and get away with it.

Policymakers and economists of all stripes have long supported antitrust laws to limit monopoly power on the grounds that limited competition is bad for customers. Yet, when it comes to labor policy, the federal government creates and enforces a monopoly, as union officials get to impose a contract on all workers, even those harmed by the terms of the agreement. For example, union seniority rules mean high-performing but less senior workers are the first to be laid off should workforce reductions become necessary.

Union officials even oppose changes to federal labor law to allow employees to be awarded raises or bonuses above what is dictated by the union contract.

In theory, union officials are granted these extraordinary powers on the grounds that workers have chosen their exclusive representative to bargain for them, but as the UAW shows, this is at odds with reality. GM, Ford and Chrysler have all been unionized under the UAW for well over half a century, meaning no current worker participated in deciding whether or not to unionize. In fact, a study of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) data shows that over 90% of unionized workers never actually voted for the union that purports to represent them.

While federal labor law does have a mechanism for independent-minded workers to vote out an incumbent union, NLRB rules make doing so virtually impossible, with complicated bars that prevent votes for years at a time while requiring workers to use their own money to gather signatures from their coworkers who, in the case of GM, are spread out at plants across the country.

Even winning a decertification vote doesn’t guarantee the union will be removed, as workers at a ball bearing plant in Alabama found out when they attempted to remove the UAW, only to be forced to vote five times before the results of their vote were finally certified.

Nor will workers find it any easier to hold union officials accountable through internal union elections. As news accounts made clear, Dennis Williams chose Gary Jones, a former accountant and an unexpected choice at the time, as president in true dynastic fashion. Meanwhile, union officials who saw the corruption first hand were afraid to report it because blowing the whistle could mean being sent from headquarters back to the assembly line.

No wonder the UAW has itself been labeled a “co-conspirator” by prosecutors in the corruption scandal, when widespread corruption was reportedly ignored by officials who observed it out of a fear that blowing the whistle would mean having to work in the factory alongside the rank-and-file members they claim to represent.

Adding insult to injury, GM workers in states without right-to-work laws (Ohio, New York and Missouri) would be fired for not paying dues or fees to the union, even as such mandatory payments fund Gary Jones’ salary and the team of lawyers the UAW has hired.

The UAW scandal should be the springboard for a bigger conversation about the powers granted to union officials over individual workers. After all, at the same time UAW officials are facing investigation or prosecution by the federal government, a different arm of the federal bureaucracy is enforcing their monopoly that blocks individual workers from representing themselves or selecting a different union.

Although the current one-size-fits-all monopoly bargaining regime is entrenched, ending it is not unimaginable. Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, observed, “The workers of America adhere to voluntary institutions in preference to compulsory systems which are held to be not only impractical but a menace to their rights, welfare and their liberty.”

It’s time we rethink the laws that allow corrupt union officials to control the lives of workers for decades without challenge or question. Union officials should have to earn each worker’s trust and money, but as long as union bosses get the power to force workers under their so-called “representation,” union officials will continue to use that power to enrich themselves at the expense of the rank and file.

Mark Mix is president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.