Anecdotes and Data
Everybody enjoys telling, hearing or reading a good story. Sometimes the point of the story is to entertain. Sometimes it’s to inform. And sometimes it’s to persuade. If a story is intended to entertain, it really doesn’t matter if the author gets the facts right; if the story is intended simply to make you smile, who cares if it is true? But if it is intended to inform or persuade you of something, facts and context matter. When used together, anecdotes can provide compelling insights into data, and vice versa. But when used in isolation, they can be manipulated and wielded to sow misinformation about a particular topic.
How does that relate to the Office of Labor-Management Standards?
OLMS’s principal mission is to enforce the Labor Management and Reporting Disclosure Act's provisions regarding union democracy, financial integrity and transparency to protect workers from overreach by union officers and employees, and to assure them, the public and policy-makers that the labor movement writ large is doing its job as intended. When OLMS sets aside a union officer election, or when a union officer or employee is convicted of a crime arising from their union service or when a local union is placed in trusteeship, a couple of things happen. A description of the event appears on the OLMS website and annual report. Why is it there? It is to inform interested readers about the particular event. But often that anecdote is decoupled from the underlying data for the purpose of persuading people that there is some conclusion to be reached – conclusions often not supported by data.
At OLMS, we not only have the responsibility to enforce the LMRDA, we have the responsibility to report on our enforcement activities in a fair way, using both single events and aggregate data to tell a full story, so consumers of our information can make up their own minds. We can’t change what others write about the work we do, but we can put the reports about our work into a context that considers the data and not just the anecdote.
And that is why we are working to increase the amount of information available on our website. Starting today, we will report information about our enforcement activities in two ways: we will report the anecdotes about individual cases as we always do and we will report the data concerning our enforcement activities in a broader context, giving readers the opportunity to see the what that activity looks like historically and across the breadth of the labor union world.
If you click on the “Learn More” link on the OLMS homepage, you will find links that take you to historical descriptions of the scope of OLMS election, trusteeship and union asset enforcement activities. And coming up next will be a portal that will take readers to sites – both inside the Department of Labor and external to it – that contain contextualized information about our work, about labor unions and the employment conditions of the workers the LMRDA is aimed at protecting. And from time to time you can find blog posts about these activities and more through the “From the Director’s Desk” feature on the home page and by email if you are a subscriber to the OLMS mailing list. I hope these links – along with the anecdotes and data they contain – will spark a healthy discussion about the state of today’s labor movement and its role in a modern American economy.
Jeffrey Freund is the director of the department's Office of Labor-Management Standards.