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Two Hundred Thousand Teamsters Who Didn't Exist
This is funny and a little disturbing.
Earlier this month, I went to a panel discussion in New York about the labor movement. On stage, an organizer from the Teamsters casually mentioned that his union had added 200,000 new members last year. I did a double take. Then I felt a little embarrassed that I hadn’t been aware of this, as a professional labor reporter. Two. Hundred. THOUSAND. New members. JUST LAST YEAR?? Why weren’t we all talking about this?
In the context of organized labor, this number of new members at one union in one year would represent an incredible surge. There are only 14.3 million total union members in the United States of America. The Teamsters, one of the nation’s biggest unions, claim a membership of about 1.25 million—membership that has been built over the course of more than a century. In a typical year, the single biggest new union shop in the country is usually some few thousands of people. The Amazon warehouse on Staten Island that unionized in 2021, for example, was the biggest of that year, representing about 8,300 workers. And that was abnormally large.
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After I heard about the Teamsters growth, I started wracking my brain. Where had all those new members come from? The equivalent of 25 Amazon warehouses in one year? The Teamsters are a strong union, and they do aggressively pursue new organizing, but I would have heard if they had organized even one shop that was extraordinarily big, much less dozens. The organizer on stage that night mentioned that the union was increasing its membership at its shops in “right to work” states—in other words, convincing more people to sign up as members at places that had already been organized. Okay? Maybe that was the driver? Still, this seemed like a noteworthy union success story that was getting bizarrely little press.
Then, last week, a story appeared in Bloomberg Law. The reporter, Ian Kullgren, wrote:
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters will submit a revised membership report to the US Department of Labor to correct an earlier version that considerably overstated membership gains in 2022, a union spokeswoman said.
The updated filing will show that the Teamsters gained just 3,200 members last year—a far cry from an initial report in March that claimed an increase of 206,000 members, or 20% growth. The error was unintentional, and stemmed from the use of an outdated mathematical formula, Teamsters spokeswoman Kara Deniz said.
Ah. Aha. Okay. So. It was a mistake. A misstatement of, let’s do a little math here… MORE THAN TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND MEMBERS. I spoke to Deniz yesterday, who told me that this was simply a case of a “keystroke error”—in essence, accounting people made a mistake when filling out the federal disclosure paperwork, and the wrong number got reported. It was not a case of some Teamster local or another trying to inflate its own numbers; it was just a mistake.
I have no reason to doubt that this is true. Lord knows I make my share of tyypos. What I want to highlight here, though, is the fact that an error this large came out into the world, and then… just was. Nobody really picked up on it, until the Teamsters fixed it. This is the equivalent of, say, the City of New York putting out a press release that says “Our annual tally shows the city gained two million people last year,” and then the press and the public saying “Oh wow, big number,” but never asking where the people came from, or who they were, or where they happened to be living.
Every year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out its annual measurement of union membership in America. In 2022, union density—the percentage of workers who are union members—went down (as usual), but in terms of raw numbers, total union membership went up by 273,000 people. This gain in raw membership was then touted by the AFL-CIO and similar organizations as proof of how popular unions are. (Union density is a much more meaningful statistic, but it keeps going down, so they prefer to tout other numbers that appear to be going up.) Now, consider the fact that the size of the reporting error the Teamsters made is almost equivalent to the size of the total union membership gain in America for the year! That’s how big this is. The BLS told me that their measurements are based on household surveys, not direct reporting from unions, so it will presumably not need to be adjusted now that the Teamsters have corrected their figure. Still: It’s a big fucking number of union members to just appear, and then disappear, with little notice.
I am not writing about this to point fingers or cast blame. I am writing about it to say that the fact that a mistake this big can happen is pretty good evidence of how broken and decrepit the structures are holding the labor movement together. In particular the press, of which I am a part. I believe and have argued at length that 1) Inequality is America’s biggest problem, and 2) Strengthening organized labor is the best way to fix it. (If you don’t believe this please buy my book, coming in early 2024!) That means that unions, as weak as they may be now, are vitally important to the health of American society. And as a power center, there should be a robust press covering the world of labor. But there’s not. There are a relative handful of heroic, very attractive labor reporters, many of them freelancers, stretching to cover hundreds of unions and millions of workers. It is a net with very big holes—holes big enough for two hundred thousand imaginary Teamsters to pass through unnoticed.
Ideally, the labor movement itself would have an enlightened understanding that a healthy labor press is a critical part of a healthy labor movement, and they would create a standing revenue stream that would fund an independent labor media that would be able to write about all the important things that unions do. That’s not really the case, though. Unions, like most institutions, are not quite that enlightened. They do want reporters to write about what they do, but they don’t necessarily want a standing army of reporters who will poke around and criticize them when they do bad. So most of the independent media outlets that are truly committed to labor coverage are pretty much constantly broke, and the mainstream media tends to treat this stuff as a niche, a little appetizer branching off the business beat, rather than as a main course.
Which is all to say: Hello, and thank you for reading my Substack. Please subscribe, and support it financially if possible. Are you looking for the robust independent media doggedly keeping an eye on the vital world of organized labor? Well, I’m sorry to say, here it is. It is, with some exceptions, a big web of random journalists just like me. We have to build the institutions we want sometimes.
Two hundred thousand people. Yowza!
At In These Times this week, I wrote about police unions—specifically, about the fact that they could not even be bothered to stand up and speak out against a Florida bill aimed at decapitating their fellow public unions. We need to kick police out of the labor movement. If you stick around here I promise you will hear more about this.
The WGA strike continues. The picket lines are only getting stronger each week. Join one! Full information is here. The Teamsters are supporting us hardcore, along with many other unions and passersby.
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