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Fact Checking Failure in Five Easy Steps

Glenn Kessler's nose is growing.

4:03 PM, Feb 8, 2012 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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I've already written at length on the major media's "fact checkers" and, alas, it's a never ending game of whack-a-mole to point out the absurdity of the arguments employed by these self-appointed guardians of veracity.

And so the Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler emerges from the mire of truthiness to once again to kick dirt in the face of the obvious with his post on the Center for Union Facts's Super Bowl ad. If you didn't already see the ad, you can watch it here, but the basic gist of it is this claim: "Only ten percent of people in unions today actually voted to join the union."

Kessler awards this three out of four Pinocchios for being dishonest. Now you can plow through about 600 words of argumentative prestidigitation explaining why it's unfair to cite this statistic, but let's just skip ahead to the part of Kessler's conclusion where the record scratches:

In the end, this is a nonsense fact. On its face, it may be technically correct...

For people that profess to suss out facts, boy do fact checkers love shading the truth. It's not "technically correct"—it's just correct. The only technical aspects here are the selective arguments that Kessler employs to claim that, despite the fact that most union members have no say in paying dues to unions that may not represent their vocational and political interests, they would still gladly support their union if it were a voluntary matter.

After parading through a variety of information about worker attitudes toward unions, including citing one survey that reports "unionized workers strongly support their unions, and that the vast majority would vote to retain them in an election for union representation," Kessler writes:

Ultimately, the Center’s statistic tells us little about worker attitudes about unions. The NLRB reports show that when there is a vote, workers usually vote to form a union. They also have the option of decertifying a union or changing their union leadership. The only thing that this statistic tells us is how many workers are still in their jobs from that original union vote.

Kessler makes it sound like workers generally tend to like unions, because workers are still voting to form unions and don't decertify them as much. This does not take into account how often labor laws are absurdly stacked against employers and workers who oppose unionization, or that unions have an illustrious history of corruption and threatening behavior when it comes to ensuring the results of workplace elections or avoiding decertification. But the basic unavoidable fact he doesn't engage is unionism is in steep decline—in the middle of the 20th century private-sector unionism was around 35 percent. It's now at 6.9 percent.

Now much of that change is surely due to broader economic factors and/or unionization making industries uncompetitive, but it's pretty hard to argue that on some level millions in the labor force didn't decide union membership was no longer in their best interest. (The fact that most union members are now in the public sector is not exactly a ringing endorsement for unionism being in anyone's economic interest.) Kessler does rightly note that in recent years union membership has been somewhat stable, so maybe we are getting down to the bone and the percentage of unionized workers remaining really is strongly pro-union.

But, what if—and this is a crazy suggestion here—some nontrivial percentage of current union workers don't actually want to pay union dues, but they do it anyway because they need a job and it's a condition of employment? Now how could we move beyond the realm of dubious academic surveys and find out if it really is the case that union workers "strongly support" their union despite the fact that 90 percent of them never voted to join it? If, as Kessler says, "[National Labor Relations Board] reports show consistent support for unions when the matter has been put to a vote through the NLRB process," why not let workers reaffirm that they wish to remain in unions or, better yet, allow them to pay dues voluntarily? Of course, that's unlikely to happen because unions have gone to war repeatedly in the last few years to protect compulsory unionism.

This seems to be the really, really obvious point the Center for Union Facts is raising, and Kessler dutifully ignores this while sitting astride his altitudinous steed accusing the organization of spouting "nonsense." 

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