Many years ago, as a young reporter, I talked to a United Mine Workers union leader about a wildcat strike. When would he be getting his members back to work?
It wasn't as simple as ordering them back, he explained. The union was a democracy, he said. Striking members would meet to discuss the issue, then vote on whether to end the walkout.
So, I asked him, did he have any prediction on when his members might vote to end the work stoppage?
"When I tell them to," he grinned.
Increasingly, it doesn't work that way anymore. Many union members have become skeptical about what their leaders tell them - even about whether union membership is a good deal for them.
Public employee unions suffered an embarrassing defeat this week in the gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin. They were out to unseat Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who convinced state legislators to curb collective bargaining for public employees and require them to pay more for health insurance and pensions. Labor leaders throughout the nation saw the recall election as an opportunity to remind other governors of union power. The election pitted the unions' champion, Democrat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, against Walker.
Walker won handily, with 53 percent of the vote to Barrett's 46 percent (a third candidate garnered 1 percent).
But election returns were not the most striking demonstration from Wisconsin that unions are losing clout - especially with their members.
According to the Associated Press, exit polls indicated only 63 percent of voters in union households cast ballots for Barrett. Despite frenzied exhortations by union leaders, more than one-third of the rank-and-file voted for Walker.
It gets even more interesting: Among union-related laws enacted last year in Wisconsin was a provision banning most government employers (except for those involved in public safety) from automatically withholding union dues from workers' paychecks. Since that law went into effect, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union has lost nearly half its members in Wisconsin. AFSCME membership dropped from 63,577 to 34,942.
In other words, when public employee union members are given a choice of whether to write a check for union dues, many decide it's not worth the money.
A federal court already has struck down Wisconsin's ban on automatic withholding of union dues, with the judge adopting a curious rationale. Depriving public employee unions of the dues money is an infringement against First Amendment rights, he wrote. It keeps union members from using the organization to speak freely on issues of concern, he explained.
No, it does not. If public employees want to support "speech" by unions, they are free to write checks themselves. And what if the workers would rather use their money to speak out on issues not related to the union - or perhaps even opposed to it? Automatically deducting union dues from their paychecks is an infringement against their First Amendment rights to use the money for that purpose. Hopefully, the Wisconsin judge's ruling will be reversed on appeal.
Union membership has declined precipitously in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 11.8 percent of the work force belongs to unions. Events during the past several months in Wisconsin indicate the downward trend may be accelerating.
One of my favorite politicians, William L. Gilligan, passed away this week. A Wheeling native, Gilligan served in the state Senate for a couple of terms during the 1970s when he lived in Sistersville. He was a Republican.
A Marine veteran of World War II in the Pacific, Bill was something of a maverick. How much? Well, while in politics Bill decided he needed a convertible car for use in parades. His choice was an old, restored Edsel.
My sincere condolences go out to his family.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org