An accountability double standard

Despite new federal rules, labor unions still operate with too little member oversight.

Darren Bernard

No member of the largest U.S. worker groups has ever had trouble detecting the official political stances of his or her union. The United Auto Workers keeps a link on its Web site that lets visitors calculate how much they would lose under President George W. Bush’s plan for Social Security. The main page of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations Web site has a sidebar labeled simply, “Bush Watch.” In 2004, the New Jersey Education Association made news when it sent out a newsletter asking its members to attend and support an abortion rights rally in Washington, D.C.

So it probably comes as no surprise this year that, thanks to new Department of Labor requirements, a number of major labor unions have been revealed as generous supporters of far-left political causes. The thing is, in many cases, unions have been spending millions of dollars in dues for political causes that have absolutely nothing to do with their members’ well-being.

Just last year, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations gave a magnanimous $150,000 to the liberal Economic Policy Institute, as well as smaller grants to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Rainbow and People United to Serve Humanity Coalition, and the American Progress Action Fund ” the “sister advocacy organization” of the far-left Center for American Progress.

Some educators might be surprised (and a little displeased, perhaps) to hear that the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, gave away more than $65 million in 2005 to liberal groups like the Congressional Black Caucus, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Amnesty International, and the Rainbow and People United to Serve Humanity Coalition. The National Education Association even found room for a healthy $15,000 donation to the Human Rights Campaign ” a group that proudly espouses “working for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.”

Admittedly, many of the donations made by unions are legitimate contributions to groups with a direct connection to workers’ welfare and safety. And, to be sure, there is certainly nothing illegal about the National Education Association spending union dues on groups that advance gay rights and generally oppose conservative ideals. The question is whether workers want their dues to go toward a flagrantly partisan group of organizations, and, perhaps more importantly, why only now union members are beginning to hear about all of it.

The much-needed Department of Labor accountability standards came into effect this year, demanding labor unions disclose detailed information on how they spend union dues. Needless to say, the changes were vigorously opposed by Big Labor, which spent some $100,000 in court with the Department of Labor over the rules. And for no small reason, it turns out.

But the important point here is not that the National Education Association, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, and a healthy share of other workers unions have turned into slush funds for liberal causes (though it is not particularly surprising). What should be appreciated by all Americans ” regardless of occupation ” is that unions have again been proved to be unaccountable to their members.

One of the most underpublicized stories in recent years has been the tale of corruption in workers unions. In 2005 alone, the Department of Labor took criminal action against more than 150 crooked officials in workers groups like the American Postal Workers Union, United Auto Workers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Many of the union officials indicted last year were responsible for stealing upwards of tens of thousands of dollars.

Let us hope the new rules will turn out to be a first step in bringing order to a chaotic, corrupted labor movement. A dearth of accountability in many unions has given a handful of officials a monopoly on members’ dollars ” a surefire recipe for corruption.

Auspiciously, the Department of Labor’s new policies are a sign that the federal government is getting serious about promoting accountability on the part of union officials. Even so, far more is needed to combat the plague of abuse that has long-infected the upper tiers of the nation’s biggest workers’ unions.

After the flood of corporate fraud was revealed with the financial crises of Global Crossing, Enron, WorldCom and a slew of other major U.S. companies, Congress got tough and passed legislation to tackle accounting malpractice and auditing collusion. Internal controls were strengthened, corporate governance reformed, auditing practices tightened. For whatever reason, no such regulations have been imposed on labor unions. (For example, unlike public companies, unions still can grant loans to their members).

Arguably, the price tag for a Sarbanes-Oxley Act for labor unions would be awfully hefty. But if the National Education Association can afford to give away $65 million to liberal groups every year, it, along with every other cash-laden workers union out there, also can afford to provide its members with some respectable degree of accountability.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]