You are here

Too much union disclosure?

House Democrats are seeking to cut funding for a government agency. A sign of their newfound fiscal frugality? Well, no. Their seeking to cut funding is rooted not so much on any desire to save taxpayer dollars as to hobble the agency's mission. The agency in question is the Labor Department's Office of Labor Management Standards, which is tasked with collecting financial information from unions -- which are tax-exempt under section 501(c)5 of the Internal Revenue Code -- and making that information available to rank-and-file union members and the public (it does so through the recently established website unionreports.gov). As Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Hudson Institute asks in an op ed in today's New York Sun:
What would you do if you headed a union that spent member dues on high executive salaries, golf outings at lavish resorts, Learjets, and who knows what else? You would not want anyone to know much about your spending, nor would you want the federal government looking too closely.
Because organized labor provides so much support to Democrats, both in money contributions and through get-out-the vote efforts and activist mobilization, many powerful House Democrats are happy to do the union bosses' bidding in this case. Notes Furchtgott-Roth:
If you listened to the House floor debate on the Department of Labor spending yesterday on C-SPAN, you heard from those who have been well rewarded for looking after the interests of the union leaders, if not their members. In the 2006 election cycle, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, received $260,000 from unions that contributed at least $10,000 each to her campaign, according to public campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Pelosi supports reducing the OLMS funding. So too does the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and its Labor subcommittee, David Obey of Wisconsin. Mr. Obey's forms revealed that he received more than $100,000 in union money. Indeed, it was Mr. Obey's subcommittee and full committee that did the detailed work to reduce the OLMS spending. The chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, George Miller of California, reported that he received at least $191,000 from labor unions. He too supports trimming OLMS.
So what do these politicians find so offensive about this agency? "Since 2001, OLMS's audit program has assisted the Justice Department in obtaining more than 775 criminal convictions and $72 million in court-ordered restitution for union members," says Furchtgott-Roth. Indeed, if you think that union corruption is a now-resolved problem from a long-gone era, think again -- specifically, take a look at OLMS' recent criminal enforcement history, including for this year. Criminal activity aside, there's the question of what union dues are for. Some union chiefs might be chafing at the expanded reporting requirements, which they opposed, and (in their view) for good reason. Again, Furchtogtt-Roth notes:
Some of the spending is open to question. Take golf, for instance. New York's Stage and Picture Operators reported spending $92,000 at Florida's Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort at an executive board meeting in 2006. Learjets are hardly a more worthwhile use of union dues. Yet public OLMS records show that the Machinists Union in Upper Marlboro, Md., paid more than $1.5 million for Learjets, pilots and maintenance. And OLMS forms show that the executive vice president of the Journeymen and Allied Trades, headquartered in Briarwood, N.Y., Peter DeVito, was paid more than $450,000 in 2005, the same as the secretary/treasurer of the organization, Edward Byrne. The president of the International Longshoremen's Association headquartered in New York, John Bowers, was paid more than $413,000 in 2005. Perhaps there's nothing wrong with spending union dues on golf or on high salaries for union bosses. Perhaps the rank-and-file don't disapprove — if they know. But do they know?
In addition to spending on such luxuries, union members also have a right to know about how their dues are being spent on political activity. After all, union dues are intended to pay for representational expenses in collective bargaining, but as The Wall Street Journal found early last year, when it looked at the National Education Association's first expanded financial report to become public, the nation's largest union spends large sums on left-wing activism:
If we told you that an organization gave away more than $65 million last year to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Amnesty International, AIDS Walk Washington and dozens of other such advocacy groups, you'd probably assume we were describing a liberal philanthropy. In fact, those expenditures have all turned up on the financial disclosure report of the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union.
Some of this giving is self-serving.
Protect Our Public Schools, an anti-charter-school group backed by the NEA's Washington state affiliate, received $500,000 toward its efforts to block school choice for underprivileged children. (Never mind that charter schools are public schools.) And the Floridians for All Committee, which focuses on "the construction of a permanent progressive infrastructure that will help redirect Florida politics in a more progressive, Democratic direction," received a $249,000 donation from NEA headquarters. When George Soros does this sort of thing, at least he's spending his own money. The NEA is spending the mandatory dues paid by members who are told their money will be used to gain better wages, benefits and working conditions. According to the latest filing, member dues accounted for $295 million of the NEA's $341 million in total receipts last year. But the union spent $25 million of that on "political activities and lobbying" and another $65.5 million on "contributions, gifts and grants" that seemed designed to further those hyper-liberal political goals. The good news is that for the first time members can find out how their union chieftains did their political thinking for them, by going to www.union-reports.dol.gov, where the Labor Department has posted the details.
Now the union bosses' allies in Congress seem determined to blunt the new disclosure requirements. If they honestly believe that they are acting wholly in the interest of their members, then what do they fear from accurate financial reporting? As the Journal's John Fund also discusses this in his latest column, enforcing accurate union financial reporting is hardly a right-wing plot:
The OLMS reporting requirements date back to the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959, the last major revision of federal labor law. The American Law Encyclopedia notes that then-Sen. John F. Kennedy "was instrumental in inserting title I of the act, which has been dubbed the union bill of rights." It mandated that union votes be by secret ballot, that unions file reports on large payments and loans to union officers, and that all members have access to union financial records and the right to recover misappropriated union assets. Its provisions led directly led to the creation of the Labor Department office that Democrats now consider the lone example of bloated government. Far from oppressing unions with burdensome reporting requirements, the Office of Labor Management Standards is doing what governments often do best: provide information and punish people who abuse the public trust.
(Video: Fund also discusses the union reporting issue online.)