Back to the Days of 'On the Waterfront'?

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To read the latest headlines about American labor unions, you might think you were in a time warp: membership on the rise, reports of widespread corruption, the Teamsters headed by a guy named Hoffa. A report released by the Labor Department this week shows that unionism is on the rise for the first time in over two decades. The reason is simple enough — just as the nation is experiencing its first labor shortages in decades, workers are in a position to make greater demands. Even tech firms, the Wild West of modern American capitalism, have gone union in recent years, with membership up in 1999 at IBM, and Microsoft.

But will unions learn from the sins of the past that contributed to a decades-long decline in membership? It appears the answer is no. The New York Times reported Friday that an in-house audit by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the nation's second largest union, found corruption and embezzlement in dozens of its locals across the nation. The boss of one local that includes New York City's school crossing guards and cafeteria workers has been indicted for draining over $2 million from the union's coffers. AFSCME's leadership says such corruption has become possible through a recent decentralization that has given much of the power back to the locals — undoing decades' worth of power consolidation, which was originally enacted largely to better police the unions. One of the main criticisms of the younger Hoffa's tenure has been his push to re-decentralize the Teamsters. His critics say this would return the nation's most famous (and third largest) union to its notorious 1950s heyday, when mobsters ran the locals and local bosses got fat on kickbacks. Where's Terry ("I coulda been a contender") Malloy when you need him?