The Labor Department is trying to make America’s largest labor unions make detailed reports on how they spend their members’ money. The department’s proposal has union leaders hopping mad — and in a letter sent to Labor secretary Elaine Chao yesterday, 28 Republican congressmen sided with the unions.
Under current law, unions are required to file annual reports so that their members can see how their dues are spent. But the current disclosure forms provide little useful information to members. Union officials can list $3.9 million in “sundry expenses,” or $62 million in “grants to joint projects with state and local affiliates,” without providing any further information. The forms also make it impossible to determine the full compensation that union leaders receive.
Many unions are unable, or unwilling, to abide by even these weak requirements. They file their reports late, or file sloppy reports, or don’t file at all. Scanty though it is, the information appears to be valued by many people. Labor Department officials say that since they have started posting the forms online, the relevant pages have gotten 425,000 hits a month.
Over the last decade, funding for audits of unions has been slashed. Still, the Labor Department has been convicting union officials for corruption, getting an average 11 convictions a month for the last five years. Two recent union scandals — one involving a Washington, D.C., teachers union and another a union insurance fund — have received press attention, but most of these scandals have not.
The unions have pushed hard for financial regulations that would ensure “transparency, accountability, and full and accurate disclosure” from corporations. But what is vital for investors and employees is apparently unnecessary for union members. The unions claim that comprehensive reporting would be costly and onerous. (The department has pledged to provide the unions with free software to make compliance easier.) Last year, Senator Tom Harkin tried to block the Labor Department from spending any money to develop tighter regulations.
It’s often said that the White House, intent on courting union leaders, disapproves of the Labor Department’s efforts to fight union corruption. That was the gist of some of the reporting when Secretary Chao and union leaders exchanged some tough words at the AFL-CIO’s winter meeting. But both Labor Department and White House sources tell me that there is no disagreement on the need for more disclosure from the unions.
Those congressional Republicans who value their union ties are another matter. Rep. Jack Quinn of New York got 27 of his Republican colleagues to join him in asking Chao to withdraw her proposal. A lot of the Republicans from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania signed the letter; also Reps. Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, Jerry Lewis of California, Don Young of Alaska, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida.
Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican, now holds the position that Harkin held in the last Congress: chairman of the labor-appropriations subcommittee. Tomorrow Specter will be running a hearing of the subcommittee in which Chao’s proposed regulations may come up. Specter would not be out of place among Quinn and his colleagues. But he is also facing a primary challenge from conservative Pat Toomey. It will be interesting to see which way he comes down: against full disclosure or for it.