Unions Defend the Worst of the Worst
Not a firing offense: drinking, smoking pot, endangering old people, abusing children . . .


Jillian Kay Melchior

But the union said that even though Williams had pled guilty, the assault allegation was unproven, based on the testimony of “a disgruntled girlfriend . . . a young mother who became enraged” after Williams “got cold feet about marriage and fatherhood.” (Imagine if a conservative advocacy group made a similar statement about a domestic-abuse victim.) The arbitrator ruled in favor of Williams. Not only did the motorman get his job back, but he was also awarded $96,844 in back pay, courtesy of Massachusetts taxpayers.

Worst yet, unions have defended members who are likely to put children at risk. As Campbell Brown pointed out in the Wall Street Journal this summer, unions successfully advocated for William Scharbach, a teacher who admitted to inappropriately touching young boys. They also saved the job of Steven Ostrin, who asked one of his young female students to give him a striptease, and who had a history of sexual harassment in the classroom.  

And in New Hampshire, unions helped a University of New Hampshire professor, Edward Larkin, retain his job after he had flashed a mother and her 17-year-old daughter in a grocery-store parking lot. Larkin was convicted of a felony, but the faculty union took up his case.

“What we were concerned about was not whether this was a moral lapse, or even a behavioral lapse, but that the conditions of the contract were being followed,” said faculty union president Deanna Wood. Meanwhile, both the local chief of police and the university president expressed their dismay and frustration about Larkin’s forced reinstatement.

Lest you’re puzzled about why unions are so eager to advocate for scoundrels, the answer is simple: It has little to do with justice in the workplace and everything to do with power.  

For unions, “the worker who maybe doesn’t deserve to keep his job or is doing something illegal or questionable — his support counts as much as the support of a person who is being held back by union rules or not being protected,” says Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, to NRO. Every individual, however loathsome, pays dues and adds to the collective power of the union.  

Furthermore, unions’ incentives to maintain power by defending troublemakers derive from the fundamentals of labor law. Legally, unions are given the choice to represent only members who opt in, but most prefer to negotiate for “exclusive representation” of all workers. Exclusive representation has its perks, explains James Sherk, a labor-policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. It means that unions can impose the terms they prefer, such as seniority-based decision-making, that benefit many but not all workers. And employers are also legally required to negotiate with unions who have exclusive-representation rights. These advantages explain why unions opt to remain exclusive representatives, even in right-to-work states and even as they decry “freeloaders” who no longer pay union dues. Exclusive representation always gives unions more power — and a nifty, if misleading, talking point.

However, unions with exclusive representation are required to treat everyone equally — even those who truly deserve to lose their jobs. “They’re obligated under the law to defend everybody up to the hilt, even those who’ve committed heinous crimes,” Sherk says.  

Unions could avoid this obligation by switching to members-only representation when their contract expires, generally every three years. But they won’t, because they would stand to lose members, dues, and coercive power.

There’s another legal glitch that makes it tough for employers to fire employees who amply deserve it. Most labor contracts include provisions requiring an employer to seek arbitration before it can get rid of a worker. Both the employer and the union representing the about-to-be-fired worker must approve the arbitrators. Once chosen, these arbitrators receive hefty salaries, Phillip Wilson, president of the Labor Relations Institute, explains.  

“There’s this incentive on the part of arbitrators to split the baby,” Wilson says. “That is why the whole grievance and arbitration process is flawed. There are all these built-in measures that avoid the hard choices.”  

As unions decry Michigan’s so-called attack on organized labor, these cases are worth remembering. The issue comes down to solidarity, and unions are only as good as the workers they choose to throw their power behind. By using their influence to fight for reprobates, they trade integrity for power. Big Labor would be a lot more sympathetic if it condemned criminals and troublemakers. Instead, it’s defending them — and that is indefensible.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.