Opinion: Carolina Beat

No. 819: Why Would a Worker Need Protection From a Union?

The idea behind labor unions is that they’re both interested in and good at advancing the welfare of workers. But the reality is often much different. Unions frequently can’t do much to advance the welfare of workers, and have a nasty habit of turning on those who don’t want their services.

A recent case at the Thomas Built Bus plant in High Point is illustrative.

Jeff Ward is an employee who did not want to be represented by the United Auto Workers. In March 2004, after the union was declared to be the exclusive bargaining representative of all the workers based on the notoriously unreliable, abuse-prone “card check” procedure, Ward sought legal assistance from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

Lawyers of the NRWF demonstrated to the satisfaction of the National Labor Relations Board that the so-called election was completely tainted because many workers were pressured into signing cards saying that they wanted the UAW. Ward had simply stood up for his rights and was vindicated. Because of that, he’s now a target.

Last week, after returning to work after some time off, Ward was shocked to find fliers in the plant that gave his phone number, address, driving directions, and the suggestion, “Go tell him how you really feel about the union.” In response to the threat, the NRWF is providing his home with 24-hour security.

At this time, it isn’t known whether the UAW is behind the threatening fliers, but there’s a long, nasty history of union-sponsored violence against workers who went against the wishes of union officials. It’s hard to believe that the fliers were made up by an individual worker.

As a shocking example of union violence, in a Texas case in the 1980s, an oil-refinery worker decided, after nine months on strike, that he had to go back to work to support his family. The union promptly unleashed a campaign of threats at him and his family. When intimidation didn’t work, it hired a gunman, who shot the man as he went to his car. Luckily, surgeons were able to save the worker’s life.

With help from the NRWF, the culprits were brought to justice. A civil jury found that union officials had orchestrated the campaign of terror and attempted murder, hitting the union officials with a judgment of more than $1 million. The case was upheld on appeal.

Unionism is built upon a foundation of compulsion and it stands to reason that people who have little regard for the life, liberty, or property of others would be drawn to it. Workers can’t just join or leave labor unions as they see fit, as they can with other private organizations. Once a union wins a representation election, under federal law it becomes the exclusive representative of all the workers, indefinitely.

That, of course, is why unions try so desperately to win elections, using any tactics and promises. If they win, it means a new stream of dues money flowing into the treasury, much of it spent on high salaries for officials and political empire building.

Think about it this way: If union officials were so concerned about the welfare of workers, why would they want to threaten, harass, and even injure those who don’t want their representation? A convincing answer is that the main objective is money and power. Any benefit for the ordinary worker is a secondary consideration.

Unions aren’t inherently bad. Workers should have as much freedom to join them as to join any other sort of association. And unions would probably accomplish more actual good for workers if union officials couldn’t take them for granted.

Businesses realize that if they don’t provide good service and value for their customers, they will go elsewhere. The discipline of competition is missing when it comes to labor unions, however. That’s because the law gives them the unique privilege of representing people who don’t want it.

Ward probably won’t end up in the hospital because of his stand for his freedom to decline to associate with the UAW—at least as long as he receives protection. The sad lesson here is that there are Americans who have no qualms about threatening others who just want to live and work in peace.

George C. Leef is executive director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.