The president of California’s largest union local, the 160,000-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Los Angeles, yesterday announced he would take a leave of absence and the local would be placed in a temporary trusteeship. Tyrone Freeman’s departure comes after an in-depth series of Los Angeles Times articles detailing how Freeman fleeced union members — who make about $9 an hour caring for the infirm and disabled — of over $1 million in 2006 and 2007 alone.

Freeman did not go quietly. Union staff members report Freeman’s lieutenants pressured them to sign a petition backing the union boss. When many refused, about 10 workers had their union-provided cellphone service discontinued. Requesting to be anonymous out of fear of retaliation, one SEIU employee told the Times: “It’s essentially a loyalty oath. … There’s a lot of intimidation.”

SEIU President Andy Stern has claimed complete ignorance about ongoing corruption at the core of the largest successful unionization drive in the nation since the 1930s — a drive that “symbolized the success of the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s fastest-growing union.” But, the Times also reports, SEIU headquarters “was informed six years ago of allegations involving Freeman’s finances and personal relationships. It is unclear whether a review was undertaken at that time.

Despite the success of this one corrupt union in organizing, the threat posed by unions to our economy has declinied. Over the past 25 years, union membership in America dropped dramatically: 21.4 percent of all workers belonged to a union in 1981; today, only 12.5 percent do. The numbers are even more dramatic in the private sector: 19 percent of of private sector workers belonged to a union 25 years ago compared to only 8 percent today. Now 48%  of all union members work for the government.

Liberals are desperate to reverse this trend, and want to give corrupt bullies like Freeman all the tools they need to grow unions as fast as Freeman grew his local. To that end, Barack Obama supports “card check” legislation to end the democratic tradition of workers voting in secret-ballot elections on the question of union representation.

Under current law, workers can vote their consciences because the secret ballot allows them to vote in private. Obama would allow people like “Freeman’s lieutenants” to intimidate or force workers to sign cards, in public, saying they support unionization. They can corner employees at work, in parking lots, even at home. Strange, then, that one of the first acts of the liberals after taking over Congress was to cut funding for federal oversight of unions.

Unions simply are not needed in our 21st-century economy. They made some sense in the manufacturing economy of the 1930s. But in today’s knowledge economy, collective representation makes no sense. The fastest-growing occupations over the past quarter-century have been professional, technical and managerial in nature (Microsoft and Google are not unionized). Few workers want a one-size-fits-all contract that ignores what they individually bring to the bargaining table.

Union-negotiated, seniority-based promotions and raises feel like chains to workers who want to get ahead. More importantly, no union ever has created a dime of wealth. Unions use their bargaining power to take wealth from someone else. American companies can’t afford the parasitic, corrupt influence of labor unions and still compete in the global marketplace.

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