How Unions Destroy Their Own


The Article: How The Unions Destroy Their Own — As Viewed By A Life-Long Union Supporter by Rick Ungar in Forbes.

The Text: My connection to the union movement has deep roots—roots planted in my being while growing up in a northeastern Ohio steel town. It was a place and a time where the protections and earning opportunities made possible by the union resulted in an era of middle class creation and social advancement for the many blue collar workers that formed the very heart of Youngstown, Ohio.

Men and women who were willing to work hard on the day or night shift were spurred on by the knowledge that their union was also working hard to insure that the working class would earn not only enough money to care for their families, but would have enough left over at the end of the week to put some aside for the college tuition that would insure that their own kids would not have to spend their life in the steel mills.

While these union workers may have been toiling away in manual labor jobs that required more brawn than brain, they were anything but stupid—and their union leaders clearly understood this. So much was this the case that, to this day, I swear that I learned far, far more from the men and women I encountered working in the steel mills during my summer breaks from college than I ever learned inside a classroom.

It was not just the union membership that made the union movement the critical engine for upward mobility in America. Union leaders of the time understood that they were not elected by the membership to live and behave like the executives who sat across the negotiating table at contract time and their success came from identifying with those whom they served.

Indeed, Jimmy Hoffa lived in a middle-class, working neighborhood throughout his days as the powerful leader of the Teamsters, surrounded by homes filled with the families of working men and women.

It was a time when the very idea of a union boss flying around the country in a private jet paid for with union dues would have caused any union leader who even considered such a thing to be looking for a new line of work—a concept that no longer exists for many a union boss.

And while it is certainly true that union leaders of that era became as known for some of their behavior ‘around the edges’ as they did for worker advancements—Jimmy Hoffa’s dealings with organized crime and the contributions he made from union pension funds to the building of Las Vegas are the stuff of legend—what is often left out of the conversation is that these dealings, while often questionable and illegal, always seemed to make money for the membership pension and improve the quality of a member’s retirement package.

The equation was clear—union bosses existed first and foremost to advance the cause of the membership and, in return, the membership allowed these leaders to retain their positions of power.

There was something else union bosses of that time understood very well—one rotten apple could spoil the whole barrel.

As a result, local leadership was always on the lookout for members whose behavior could put the interests of his co-workers in jeopardy. A lazy, useless worker was not going to “get by” on the protections offered by his union contract and any report of such behavior would be dealt with swiftly by the union steward in any given shop.

This attitude certainly applied to any union worker caught committing a felony connected to the job. If proven guilty, the offending worker was not going to be able to count on his union to step up for him—particularly if that law involved an act of moral depravity.


Because that sort of behavior cast a shadow on how all union members were viewed and that meant a tougher slog at the next bargaining session with management.

Clearly, this concern is no longer at work in what passes for the modern version of the union movement.

In July of this year, Neal Erickson—a teacher working at the West Branch Rose City Area Schools in Ogemaw County, Michigan—was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison as a result his conviction for first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor. It turns out that the teacher had been engaged in a long-term, sexual relationship with one of his students.

Following Erickson’s termination, his local union, The West Branch-Rose City Education Association, an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association (“MEA”), sought payment from the school board of a $10,000 severance fee which the union argued was required to be paid to all teachers, including a felon like Mr. Erickson, following separation from employment.

The school board—understandably—decided not to make the severance payment to Neal Erickson, leaving the union to pursue binding arbitration if they desired to collect the $10,000.

That is precisely what the Michigan Education Association has chosen to do.

The union has commenced an arbitration seeking to get Neal Erickson his money, despite the fact that his separation from employment was the direct result of his sleeping with a student—an act leading to a conviction for a serious felony committed on the job.

If you find this shocking, hold onto your hat because we have only just begun.

In 1980, the very same Michigan Education Association challenged the firing of an Ann Arbor gym teacher, named Mr. Abrahams, who had been accused by six of his students of having made sexual advances towards them. Abrahams was given a hearing by school officials and—following what was determined to be credible testimony by five of the impacted girls—was ultimately terminated from his employment.

Despite the reason for his termination, the MEA snapped into action in defense of the dismissed teacher.

In 1984, as Abrahams’ case was winding through the legal system, the now fired teacher got into an argument with his wife. After first punching the poor woman in the face, Abrahams chased his wife out into the front yard and killed her with an axe.

Certainly, this was enough to cause the MEA to quietly back away from the matter in the hopes that the negative publicity would not rub off on its membership, yes?

Not a chance.

The union continued to pursue the matter for an additional 13 years, eventually winning the case. The school district had to pay nearly $200,000 in back pay to the convicted murdered who had made sexual advances on minor students in his role as a gym teacher.

Did the MEA win?

I suppose if you are the axe wielding, wife murdering gym teacher you might think so.

And should the arbitration in Mr. Erickson’s case result in his receiving his $10,000 severance, he too might consider himself a winner.

But one need not be a labor law expert to understand that these sort of union activities have given direct cover to those who view the demise of the American union movement as beneficial to their own interests. In the process, the behavior of unions like the MEA has made the American working man and woman into the big loser.

Why would the MEA pursue these cases when the publicity generated can only serve to put another nail in the coffin of so critically important a movement that is now all but dead and buried? Why would the MEA, or any other union, want to ‘stand up’ for people like this when to do so only forces their fellow Americans to view unions as immoral, greedy entities seeking to take unfair and unreasonable advantage of our institutions and businesses?

Says Nancy Knight, director of public affairs for the MEA, by way of a published statement—

“MEA is legally obligated to enforce a contract uniformly for all employees who are governed by it. We can’t enforce a contract for one and ignore it for another, even if the actions of an individual are appalling. The crime committed here is heinous – and it should be noted that MEA was not involved in the criminal proceedings for this employee – but that doesn’t change our obligation to consistently implement a contract.”

There are so many flaws in this argument that it is difficult to know where to begin.

For starters, given the MEA’s unique experience in pursuing lost pay for an axe wielding wife killer—fired for sexually assaulting six your girls in his gym class during the 1980’s—it strikes me as reasonable that the union contracts they now negotiate would contain an exclusion when it comes to teachers fired for felonies committed during and in conjunction with the performance of their professional duties.

While this, apparently, never occurred to the union as being a beneficial provision that would protect the union from having to defend the indefensible, one must then question what would happen to the union were they to elect not to pursue Mr. Erickson’s case for severance pay.

Presumably, Mr. Erickson would sue his union for failing to do its job. The union would then be forced to spend about the same amount of money defending itself as it will likely spend pursuing Erickson’s case against the Board of Education. If the union loses, they will have to write a check for $10,000 to their ‘aggrieved’ member.

Ten grand to defend the credibility of the American union movement versus taking the steps that will only help destroy unionism in this country once and for all—how is this a close call?

These are questions and issues I would have very much liked to discuss with Ms. Knight of the MEA, however she rejected my request to do so. Instead, she elected to require me to rely only upon the official statement provided.

If it were Jimmy Hoffa or Walter Reuther, they would have insisted—forcefully—that I damn well better make time to hear their position from their own mouths if I was going to write a story like this. But then, Hoffa and Reuther cared about how their members were viewed by the public.

Of course, labor leaders like Walter Reuther and Jimmy Hoffa would never have tolerated—let alone defend—felons like Neal Erickson and the axe killer. Indeed, had offenders such as this been called onto the carpet of the old-school union bosses, they would have been lucky to come out in one piece.

By hiding behind statements and excuses like the one provided by the Michigan Education Association, today’s union leadership have played a key role in destroying this nation’s middle class by destroying the very unions they pretend to ‘lead.’

As for the hard-working teachers that form the membership of the MEA, we can only hope that you see the wisdom of making some important changes to your leadership before it is too late—if it is not already so. These people are not only destroying your future, but the future of every working American who is suffering from shrinking wages as a result of the decline of the union movement.

And for any teacher who actually perceives the MEA as acting in the best interest of its membership, you could not be more wrong. You should try to keep in mind that a great many American workers engaged in a difficult and continuing struggle long before your arrival to provide you with the opportunities and benefits you now receive. If you are willing to abandon future workers of America by sanctioning such destructive and ridiculous behavior on the part of your own union, then you must bear the burden of responsibility for your role in ending the middle class and surrendering the gains those who came before you made possible.

There may still be time for the union movement to turn things around in America, but it will never happen so long as union leaders behave as the MEA is behaving. It’s time for the membership to bring this sort of leadership to an end and elect leaders with the brains, ability and desire to work on behalf of the American worker instead of against them.


From The PBH NetworkHot On The Web
Hot On The Web