Making Unions Accountable

Recently, word came from the Department of Labor that the rumored changes to annual reports required of labor unions were coming down the pipe. The changes will give workers a clearer picture of the financial operations and spending habits of their union.

In typical fashion, the hierarchy of the many labor unions have been hurling complaints against the Bush administration over the past several months, claiming that this action is “clearly punitive,” “unduly burdensome,” etc. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO claims that he’s never seen an administration that is so “anti-labor.” Sweeny and others would have us believe that accountability for labor unions is an entirely partisan issue. The union leaders fail to note that Democrats invented the whole notion.

In 1959, Senator John F. Kennedy was influential in passing the Labor Management Reporting Disclosure Act (LMRDA), the very Act that the new regulations from the Department of Labor are promulgated under. In the report on the bill creating the LMRDA, Sen. Kennedy stated, “[the] bill is primarily designed to correct the abuses which have crept into labor and management and which have been the subject of investigation by the Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor and Management Field for the past several years.” He further stated the act was designed to provide workers with a “full accounting” of all financial transactions of the union.

Nothing near this “full accounting” ideal of the LMRDA has existed for the past forty years. If union corruption was a problem in 1959 it is more so now.

Barbara A. Bullock, former D.C. Teachers’ Union president is a prime example. Her personal shopping spree on the union members’ dime landed her in hot water. Among her many purchases, a $6,000 silver ice bucket adorned with swan heads on either side. If she had known that her financial expenditures would be itemized to the Department of Labor, she likely would have thought twice before stealing from the union.

Senator John F. Kennedy’s committee recognized something modern Democrats and union leaders seem to have forgotten, that being:

“A union treasury should not be managed as the private property of union officers, however well intentioned, but as a fund governed by fiduciary standards appropriate to this type of organization. The members who are the real owners of the money and property of the organization are entitled to a full accounting of all transactions involving their property.”

Problems like that of the D.C. Teachers’ Union while huge for their members, comprise only a fraction of the whole problem. Use of forced union dues for politics, politics which are objected to by a large part of the work force is a much greater problem.

Members of voluntary membership organizations are free to disassociate with the organization if they discover the organization doesn’t support their values. Stockholders are free to sell ownership interests upon learning that the corporation’s financial practices are corrupt. Unlike members of these two classes, workers are not able to easily refrain from financial support for the union’s political agenda. Labor unions know this and as a result little accountability to individual members occurs. While workers can legally recover any dues that were spent on politics the high cost of litigation prevents many workers from doing so.

The reason unions don’t want reform is a fear that public inspection of their spending will hamper their support for political candidates and causes their members find objectionable. If a union wants to spend money on politics, fine – but free workers from this financial obligation and make support for such truly voluntary. Then perhaps unions will have “moral standing as an advocate for social justice and a fair deal for employees.” Until support for unions’ political agenda is funded voluntarily, unions have no moral standing. The use of forced dues to support an agenda is essentially slavery. There is no moral standing in that.

The best reasons the Administration has for reforming the reporting requirements for unions come not from lawyers, political spectators, or other analysts, but from workers themselves. Spend one afternoon at the Department of Labor and you will read page after page of workers’ personal testimonies attesting to the great need for more information from their unions. Unions have enjoyed over forty years of relatively lax oversight to conduct their affairs without substantial accountability. They have failed to carry this responsibility to the benefit of their members. Instead they have chosen to ignore the large portion of their membership that oppose their ideological driven political agenda.

The change proposed by the Administration will not solve all the problems inherent in forcing financial support for political causes, but it is one small step toward protecting workers’ rights.

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