It's Way Past Time to Open Big Labor's Books

How are union bosses celebrating Labor Day 2003? They are working feverishly in lobbying the U.S. Senate to tie labor secretary Elaine Chao’s hands and preserve the secrecy surrounding their financial affairs. The Senate should approve the Labor Department’s budget without shutting down Chao’s proposed reform of organized labor’s financial reporting requirements.

Last December, the Labor Department proposed an update of the more-than 40-year-old LM-2 disclosure form that the nation’s richest labor unions must file annually with the Labor Department. For the first time, union bosses would have to report the costs of local foot-soldiers going door-to-door and conducting phone banks and voter-turnout drives — expenses they need not admit to the Federal Election Commission since they are not “direct” contributions to candidates.

With the addition of categories like “Political Activities” and “Lobbying” to the LM-2, the veil of secrecy would be lifted from Big Labor’s political machine — a machine fed with the dues of workers in 28 states forced to pay as a condition of employment. It’s also information that workers in those states need to know in order to enforce their right under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Communications Workers v. Beck decision not to pay forced dues for union politics. But union lobbyists are working furiously to keep the veil tied down.

On its website, for example, the Service Employees International Union suggests that members use this text for letters to Congress opposing the new disclosures: “By making this information available to the general public…the new requirements would reveal expenditures on organizing, bargaining and other activities.” In the SEIU’s own little world, this disclosure to union members and the general public would “put efforts by workers to form and join unions at risk.”

The Supreme Court held, in Beck, that unionized employees could only be required to pay dues for collective bargaining, not politics, organizing and other activities that the union could not prove were bargaining-related. By the SEIU’s own admission, union officials now seek to hide the very information needed to enforce that right “from the general public.”

And on the website of Labor Notes, Association for Union Democracy president Judith Schneider wrote: “Forcing unions to report what percentage of staff time and total expenditures are made for political action and lobbying will make it easier to allege that unions…have violated campaign finance restrictions. Additionally, the breakdown of expenditures may result in [forced] agency fee payers, those who choose to pay only that portion of dues used for collective bargaining purposes, demanding a larger share of their money back.”

Incredibly, according to Schneider, this is a reason for unions to oppose the new disclosure rules.

These comments reveal the true basis for Big Labor’s desperate attempts to tie Chao’s hands by amending the Labor Department’s appropriation bill to nullify the new disclosure forms. The last thing the union hierarchy wants is to encourage workers to exercise their right under the Beck decision to cut off the use of their forced dues for Big Labor’s political machine.

In the wake of the Enron scandal, the AFL-CIO proclaimed “No More Business As Usual” and called for “transparency, accountability and full and accurate disclosure” on the part of corporations. But when it comes to full disclosure to union members, AFL-CIO boss John Sweeney claims that the proposed disclosure reforms have “…no widespread support among union members at all.” But since making the current disclosure forms of every union available on the Labor Department’s website in June 2002, 3.4 million people have logged on. Sweeney could not be more wrong about the workers he claims to represent. It is far past time to give those workers a Labor Day present: the information they need and obviously want about the unions claiming to represent them.