The Union Label

Shakedown? You wanna talk about a real shakedown?

What? You didn't think Al Capone was around any more? Let me tell you about the SEIU.

Merriam-Webster defines a shakedown as extortion. To "extort" is to obtain one's money or property by force or intimidation. Herewith, a personal story which (I apologize) requires a bit of context.

After leaving Congress, I was invited to teach at Harvard. At Harvard, one's ability to teach is gauged by fellow faculty members and administrators (who judged me to have done well enough that I was appointed and reappointed , eventually staying far longer -- eleven years -- than almost any other non-tenured "practitioner" in the Kennedy School's history). And by the students (who voted to name me the most outstanding teacher in the school). Then I was invited to teach at Princeton and again did so successfully. I also taught, as a visiting professor, at Georgetown. All in all, more than 15 years of teaching at not-so-shabby places.

But what do Harvard and Princeton faculty and students know? When I was asked to teach courses on foreign policy and security policy at George Washington University -- subject matter I had some familiarity with, having spent a 16-year congressional career in those fields -- I learned that I did not have the necessary qualification to teach there, the necessary qualification being an agreement on my part to kick back part of my salary to the union.

Just to make it clear, when GW asked me to come there to teach, we discussed many things -- subject matter, readings, day and time of my classes, compensation -- but not a word was said about "union." There was no "Gee, we have a union here and it would be nice of you to support it." Actually, I might have done it: my grandfather was an active member of a union forerunner in Ohio and my uncle was an active union member in California. In leadership classes I teach at the University of Maryland's law school, I use Victor Reuther's book describing how the UAW fought against truly oppressive management practices (including some the unions themselves now employ). I am, in short, not anti-union. I am, however, anti-coercion. If I join -- a union, a civic club, a political party, a religious organization, the Scouts -- I will do so because I choose to do so, not because I am told that I have to. And yet here I was, asked to teach about foreign policy and my "credentials" for such an assignment being determined by somebody who, for all I know, can't tell Ecuador from Eritrea but knew that the one essential requirement was paying off the union dues collector in order to keep my job.

Ironically, during the semester I had lunch with a very well known GW faculty member who knew nothing of the union connection. At some point, the administration and the union had struck a bargain (buying labor peace?) and new faculty were given the pay-up-or-hit-the-road ultimatum.

About three-fourths of the way through my first semester at the school, I received a letter from the SEIU informing me that as a member of the faculty, if I wanted to keep my job I would either have to join their union or simply kick back part of my salary. Pay us or lose your job. I could have simply walked off, leaving the students without a finish to the course (or academic credit), paid the money and thereafter flashed my union card as I denounced the union's coercive methods, or simply paid up. Those of you who know me must surely know what I did. I threw the letter in the trash.

A while later, I received yet another letter, challenging, demanding, threatening me with the loss of my job. And tossed it. I was asked to come back to the school to teach the same two courses a second time (I had originally agreed only to one semester, having a full-time job otherwise) and I agreed. Same story: letters, threats, demands. And, of course, the always-handy waste basket.

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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