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.

After the second semester, I took my leave of GW. I was prepared to forget the whole thing; I was gone, I had done my teaching and moved on. Andy Stern, who was the union's president when the agreement with GW was reached, had left the union. Time to forget it.

But then came yet another letter, just days ago, more demanding, more challenging. If I did not agree to kick back part of my salary, I would be fired, out, denied permission to teach at GW. Well, teaching is not my career any longer; I do other things and teaching is merely a sideline now. But what if I had been a real live academic trying to pursue a career and support a family? I decided I could not be silent.

Here's the biggest irony. Unions had as the very legitimate basis for their formation the cause of free association. Workers should be free, they argued, to choose to join together and nobody should be able to tell them that exercising that right of free choice would cost them their jobs. Union leaders fought for that right. Samuel Gompers, the man whose dedication to workers' rights led to the formation of the modern American labor movement, praised collective action, praised workers' rights, condemned management oppression, praised the voluntary joining of unions -- and denounced coercion and forced membership. If you don't believe it, there's a statue of Gompers in a park in Washington, DC on which are carved quotes from two of his most important public statements. One insists that the labor movement will be worthy of respect "so long as the movement holds fast to its voluntary principles." The other argues that "no lasting gain has ever come from compulsion." And yet compulsion, denial of free choice, has now become the central tenet of union organizing and the principal reason that labor, commanding less and less public support and an ever-smaller membership, is attempting to pass legislation that would take away from workers -- that's right, the champion of workers is attempting to take away from workers -- the fundamental right of a secret ballot as to whether or not to unionize. Coercion and a resistance to democracy have become fundamental to the labor movement.

A little over half a century ago, nearly 35 percent of all American workers belonged to labor unions. By the end of the 1970s, it was less than 25 percent. Today, it is roughly 13 percent. In other words, 87 percent of the working men and women in America have no connection to the movement that claims to speak for them and to promote legislation under the guise of doing so in their name.

I was ready to let this simply move on and forget the union's demands for a kickback, its shakedown (pay us or we'll take away your job). Until that last letter too many, one demand too many, one threat too many. If I had been asked to join, given a sales pitch about real benefits GW faculty and staff had received as a result of the union's efforts, I might now have an SEIU membership card in my pocket. Instead, what I have is a letter on SEIU stationery engaging in a level of extortion Al Capone never dreamed about.