Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

For years, the most notorious and important labor unions were in the private sector. But power within the labor movement has shifted from the private sector to the public sector, if only because public employee unions have taken the lead in raw membership numbers. Luke Rosiak at the Washington Times reports that government now pays the salaries of the majority of union members in America.

The public sector had a late start — the first instances of collective bargaining didn’t arrive until the late 1950s. Allowing collective bargaining in the public sector was a line that even Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t want to cross. But they appear to have made up for lost time by adding on incredible numbers in recent decades. From 1991 to 2011, the number of unionized employees in the public sector rose from 18 million to 20.4 million.

As our Managing Director J. Justin Wilson tells the Times, public employees were traditionally seen as the last ones who needed collective bargaining:

“Anyone would have a difficult time arguing that in the public sector there’s a conspiracy to abuse the rights of workers. We have oversight mechanisms in place” and numerous forms of recourse, he said.

Furthermore, it’s the public sector unions that are allowed to fly under the radar, as they are not required to make as many disclosures as their private sector counterparts.

“[The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act is] a transparency bill:  Union members should be able to see this for themselves so they can make decisions. But public employees are exempted,” Mr. Wilson said.

One look at that information available thanks to the LMRDA, which is available at, makes it apparent why public sector unions would want to avoid the disclosures. It details all significant spending by the union and breaks down what it costs for every promotional item, every “member education” mailing, and all of the salaries for the labor bosses. Nonetheless, the Office of Labor-Management Standards at the Department of Labor admitted in its own self-assessment in October that its current practices do “not assess whether union financial integrity, democracy or transparency have actually increased.”

It’s also clear to see why many private sector workers might be turned off by their unions: some have become family dynasties. Rosiak also reports this morning that local unions are run and almost entirely controlled by kin. His lead example: One Ohio Laborers chapter has its purse strings held by members of the Mayle family, who take up five of the groups 14 leadership positions.

There is also little turnover in labor union officers from term to term. There are “elections” held on a regular basis, but rarely is an incumbent tossed from office. It’s often safe to say that if a leader doesn’t return to office, it’s a position that’s been yielded to an anointed successor.

The lesson learned is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  There are serious problems at the local level when union members might prefer some real democracy and choices, but get cronyism and nepotism instead. And on the macro level, the changing of the guard from private sector unions to the public sector will do little to change organized labor’s tactics or agenda. The only difference is that now, labor leaders can hide behind the lack of transparency.

Categories: Center for Union FactsDOL