Politics & Policy

Unions Defend the Worst of the Worst

Not a firing offense: drinking, smoking pot, endangering old people, abusing children . . .

When hundreds of Connecticut nursing-home workers went on strike this summer, some committed “alarming, malicious events of apparent sabotage . . . that placed the health of many residents in immediate danger,” according to legal testimony to the United States District Court of Connecticut.

Some of the workers even endangered the lives of elderly patients, but now, their union allies are fighting to get them their old jobs back. This case is no exception: In both the private and the public sector, unions protect the jobs of all their members, even those who have done something wrong, inappropriate, dangerous, or criminal.  

The trouble in Connecticut began last year, when Healthbridge Management tried to negotiate a new contract with employees at five of their nursing homes, where all workers are members of the Service Employees International Union. These workers wanted the company to contribute more toward their pensions, and they also demanded free health care for their entire families. Those demands were “pretty significant,” and if Healthbridge had given the union workers everything they wanted, it might have been forced to go out of business, said Zach Janowski, an investigative reporter for the Connecticut-based Yankee Institute who has been following the story closely.  

After months of negotiations, Healthbridge gave its best, last, and final offer, but the union decided to go on strike regardless on July 3, 2012. What happened next was appalling. Janowski summarized the attitude of the union members: “We want something from this company, and these elderly people are less important than the things we want. Therefore, we’re going to put people in danger for the sake of trying to get more money and benefits.”  

Union members wreaked havoc as they left. Some reportedly scrambled or removed the identification of elderly residents with dementia or Alzheimer’s, even though patients could have died from receiving the wrong drugs, food, or medical procedures. Reports to the Connecticut Department of Health indicate that someone had tampered with mechanical lifts by dismantling and hiding a critical structural component. Elderly patients could easily have fallen off the lifts to their death.  

The initial police report on the sabotage at Healthbridge stated that “there are no suspects [but] the persons involved are presumed to be employees who are part of a protest.” No one has been caught or punished yet. Meanwhile, the striking SEIU members have reportedly continued to make trouble. One man whose wife lives in the home talked to National Review Online, but he refused to give his name because union members have threatened his wife.

“They said, ‘If you care about the well-being of your wife . . . ’” he recounts. “You can read into that as you want to. I read into that a threat. I don’t want to get involved. My wife is helpless.” He adds: “Some of the people who work there just weren’t the kind of people that I’d want to be associated with, period. There were some good ones, but a lot of bad ones.”

Despite union members’ reprehensible behavior, the SEIU went to bat for its workers. The union took the case to the National Labor Relations Board, which then sought to force Healthbridge to rehire all 600 striking SEIU members regardless of their behavior.

Lorraine H. Mulligan, a veteran nurse hired by Healthbridge to investigate the situation, told the court that rehiring workers would put the elderly residents in danger, according to the Washington Free Beacon. Regardless, on December 11, Judge Robert Chatigny ruled in favor of the unions, ignoring the plight of the defenseless elderly and the new hires. Healthbridge is appealing the decision and was granted a temporary stay on December 17, but if it loses, it will have to fire all 600 replacement workers to make room for the SEIU walk-outs. Meanwhile, many residents and their families say the new workers are far superior to the old, unionized ones.

The Healthbridge case is only one instance where unions have fought to help miscreant members.  

Last week, Chrysler was forced to reinstate workers who were caught on video by Fox News drinking and possibly smoking marijuana on their lunch break, despite having to operate machinery while on the job.  

And the Boston Herald found last year that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority was forced to rehire union workers, often with back pay, after a union arbitrator ruled in their favor. One of these union workers was caught dozing off behind the control panel of a trolley and tested positive for cocaine use. Another had assaulted one of her colleagues.  

And then there’s Jacobie Williams, an MBTA motorman who was fired after he pled guilty to beating his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach with a chain. The MBTA noted that Williams had already received five other disciplinary warnings, and that he failed to report the assault-and-battery conviction, despite his employer’s policy. The transportation authority argued this was sufficient grounds for termination, given that it “needs to know when its employees commit violent crimes because it has to be in a position to make an informed decision as to whether that employee can function safely on the job or if he or she poses a threat to the riding public.”  

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. 


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