Belabor the Point
Democrats find one government office they want to cut back. It's the one that exposes union corruption.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
The new Democratic Congress has finally found a government agency whose budget It wants to cut: an obscure Labor Department office that monitors the compliance of unions with federal law.
In the past six years, the Office of Labor Management Standards, or OLMS, has helped secure the convictions of 775 corrupt union officials and court-ordered restitution to union members of over $70 million in dues. The House is set to vote Thursday on a proposal to chop 20% from the OLMS budget. Every other Labor Department enforcement agency is due for a budget increase, and overall the Congress has added $935 million to the Bush administration's budget request for Labor. The only office the Democrats want to cut back is the one engaged in union oversight.
Although Congress has long insisted on copious reporting by corporations, including the burdens of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, lawmakers have been relatively nonchalant about union reporting. Unlike the quarterly filings of corporations, unions must only file once a year with the Labor Department using a free software program. They don't have to get an independent certified audit, are only rarely audited by the government, and don't have to follow standard accounting methods.
OLMS, the Labor office that watches over union disclosure forms, says that last year 93% of unions met its reporting requirements. But the other 7% deserve scrutiny. Union members deserve to know how their dues are spent. They might want to know that in 2005, the National Education Association gave more than $65 million to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and dozens of other liberal advocacy groups that have nothing to do with the interests of teachers. In 2006, 49 individuals employed at the national AFL-CIO headquarters were paid more than $130,000. "Union members are also discovering the extent to which their dues money is funding lavish trips for union officials to luxury resorts and other expensive perks unrelated to collective bargaining," says Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
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. It has posted an impressive array of data on union governance at its Web site, unionreports.gov, where any dues-paying member can access it.
Investigations conducted by OLMS also have led to an impressive list of successful prosecutions of union officials. Just last week Willie Haynes, a member of the Saginaw, Mich., City Council who also served as a United Auto Workers financial secretary, pleaded guilty to falsifying his union local's reports. In May, Chuck Crawley, a former Teamster's local president in Houston, was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for stuffing a ballot box so he could be elected president of his union local and embezzling dues money.
GOP Rep. John Kline of Minnesota will offer an amendment Thursday to restore $3 million of the $11 million planned cutback in OLMS's budget, so its budget would merely be restored to its 2007 level. Whatever sums are spent on union disclosure reports appear to be a good investment. Unions held $22 billion in assets in 2005, and you'd think that a modest enforcement budget, representing less than 0.003% of that amoun,t shouldn't be the only target for cuts by budget appropriators.
Union officials have publicly stated that they believe many of OLMS's requirements are burdensome and unnecessary. Since unions helped elect the current Congress, they are now seeking action on their agenda, which ranges from holding fewer secret ballot elections to cutting back on the oversight that is at the heart of the 1959 union "bill of rights" that JFK championed.