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Was it rigged? Labor leaders insist they lost the closely watched unionization vote at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., on April 9 because Amazon played dirty. The retail giant lobbied hard against unionization and held worker “training” sessions where managers insisted Amazon’s pay and benefits were better than a union deal. Some workers felt Amazon tried to intimidate them or identify union supporters for possible retaliation.
The union that led the Bessemer effort may appeal the outcome, and there will probably be more unionization efforts at other Amazon facilities. Organizers applying lessons from Bessemer may do better than the meager 38% who voted to unionize there. But many workers may never warm to unions, and not because their employers have brainwashed them. Fraud and abuse at some unions has disserved members and given workers legitimate reasons to avoid paying dues to an organization that may or may not make them better off.
More than a dozen officials of the United Auto Workers union, including two former presidents, have been convicted of embezzling union funds for personal flings on luxury vacation villas, golf equipment, booze, meals and cigars. Last December, prosecutors finalized a deal to keep the UAW under federal oversight for six years and change the way members elect leaders, to root out what the Justice Department has called a “culture of corruption.” Member dues cover at least some of the cost of litigation and compliance.
In January, the Justice Department charged a former president of a New Jersey local affiliated with the Communication Workers of America with embezzling more than $600,000 in member funds. The same month, the former president of the United Industrial Service Workers of America in California earned a 12-year prison sentence for stealing nearly $800,000 from a union health care plan. The Service Employees International Union has faced several lawsuits alleging sexual harassment.
Sporadic scandals don’t mean every union isn’t corrupt. But if you’re a worker considering whether to pay $500 or $1,000 a year in union dues, obviously you want to know what kind of return you’re likely to get on your investment. Financing some fat cat’s golf outings or footwear collection doesn’t sound like a very good deal.
Despite the sprawling UAW scandal, unions’ image has improved following a record low in 2009. Union popularity peaked at 75% in the early 1950s, when 30% of American jobs were in manufacturing and union membership was 35% of the total workforce. Manufacturing only accounts for 8.5% of employment today, and union membership has plunged to 11% of workers. Most workers these days have no connection to a union either directly or through a family member.
Unions suffered a black eye during the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009, with inflexible union contracts contributing to both firms’ problems. Unions made tough concessions as part of the federal bailouts, which some people thought were bailouts for the unions as well as the automakers. Union approval bottomed out at 48% in 2009.
Approval has now rebounded to 65%, as some people now think the decline of unions has been part of the reason for stagnating middle-class incomes and worsening wealth inequality. President Biden wants more union jobs, and he endorsed the Amazon unionization drive in Alabama.
Political analysts have questioned whether Biden miscalculated, given the lopsided Alabama vote against unionizing. But the issue seems like a political win for Biden. He can champion unions without any real role in local labor battles, and he won’t have to answer for any abuses should Amazon shops unionize and then waste members’ money.
Other tests are coming that will indicate whether unions are making a real resurgence or just a nominal one. The House of Representatives has passed the PRO Act, a top priority of organized labor that would block right-to-work laws in more than two dozen states that allow workers to opt out of paying union dues. Businesses hate the bill, and Democrats in the Senate may not have enough votes to pass it. But measures contained in the bill could turn up in other legislation that makes it to Biden’s desk. He would presumably sign any pro-labor bill.
Biden also wants new jobs created under his infrastructure program to be unionized, a move that could boost union membership if enacted. The Amazon vote, however, serves as a reminder that workers may not want everything Biden thinks they need, especially if paid reasonably well, with decent benefits, as many Amazon workers are. Mostly everybody wants workers to be better off, but there’s more than one way to get there.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.