WASHINGTON -- House Republicans who wasted little time soliciting advice from corporations on federal regulations to kill argued Thursday that unions aren’t filling out enough government paperwork.
Citing “a culture of union favoritism” within the Obama administration, the chairman of a key House subcommittee called at a hearing to revive George W. Bush administration financial reporting requirements for unions that Democrats deep-sixed as costly, confusing and politically tainted.
The Bush forms asked for detailed financial information on not only union officials, but also shop stewards and safety committee members who are not on union payrolls. They also increased reporting requirements for thousands of strike funds, training funds and other trusts set up to help union members.
“Under President Obama’s watch, the Department of Labor has rolled back many of these enhanced protections to benefit union bosses at the expense of workers,” said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions. “The sun needs to shine so people can see where their resources are going.”
The last two years “have significantly damaged” Labor Department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS) ability to enforce reporting requirements for private sector unions, Nathan Mehrens, counsel for the conservative Americans for Limited Government Research Foundation, testified at the hearing. “The Obama administration is working hard to roll the clock back at least 10 years and provide less transparency for labor organization members and the public.”
Mehrens noted that the AFL-CIO provided a “road map of changes to reduce labor organization transparency” to officials in the new Obama administration, who were eager to rescind last-minute rules pushed through by Bush’s labor secretary, Elaine Chao. He did not mention similar and routine help offered to Republicans by their allies in industry.
At issue is a 1959 law known at the Landrum-Griffin Act. Congress passed the measure after revelations about widespread corruption, racketeering and undemocratic practices inside labor unions. The law required, among other things, that unions submit annual financial reports to the Labor Department.
“Union workers have a right to know where their money goes,” testified Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and a former chief economist for the Bush Labor Department. “This is a matter of fairness to the rank-and-file union members who should have the same right as any shareholder who is allowed to go over corporate books.”
But Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, dismissed the hearing as “a political exercise” aimed at stifling the voice of union members already under attack in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere. He said Republicans were more concerned about “unions supporting candidates the [Republican party] doesn’t like” than the rights of workers.
Labor union political action committees helped elect President Obama and, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, give the vast majority of their political contributions to Democrats.
That money, as Roe pointed out, came from union workers. In 2009, unions collected more than $8 billion in member dues. The next year, labor unions gave nearly $64 million to federal candidates alone -- 93% of that money went to Democrats.
Labor’s lopsided love for Democrats was why, in 1992, former Rep. Newt Gingrich wrote to Labor Secretary Lynn Martin urging her to increase union reporting requirements. His then-novel idea was to make them more onerous in order, he said, to “weaken our opponents and encourage our allies."
Andrews said he endorsed the goals encapsulated in the hearing’s title -- “The Future of Union Transparency and Accountability” -- but said statistics belie the GOP charge that unions were getting away with anything because Obama had trimmed reporting requirements and reduced enforcement staff. He noted that:
-- During the Bush years, the average number of indictments for union corruption was 122. Annual average under Obama: 126.
-- Average annual convictions for union wrongdoing under Bush: 113. Under Obama: 125.
“In 1985, the OLMS was spending about $4.01 per worker” in 2010 dollars to police union democracy and financial integrity in private sector labor unions, Andrews said. “You would think if there was a culture of union favoritism that would drop. But in 2010, the OLMS was spending $5.82 per worker.”
Democrats and their progressive allies complained throughout the Bush administration that the OLMS was one of the few exceptions to the rule that Republicans preferred less government regulation.
“I sit here wondering what kind of witch hunt we are on,” said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y. She noted far less concern about “transparency” for Wall Street corporations among her GOP colleagues on the House financial services committee.
Republicans in Congress have blocked passage of the Disclose Act, which would have required corporations to make public their political donations. Democrats cite the need for transparency after the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case cleared the way for corporations -- and unions -- to spend unlimited money on political campaigns.
Democrats on the education and workforce subcommittee got backup from one witness on the mostly Republican-friendly panel, which included no one from organized labor.
John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, testified that the Bush revisions to existing reporting requirements “failed to promote the goals of greater financial transparency and disclosure” and did little to help ordinary union members, who have not clamored for and have made little use of the more detailed information.
The changes did require unions spend more time and members’ money complying with the regulations, which left less time for other activities, including contract negotiations and grievance procedures, he said.
The reporting requirements have mostly been a boon for “union avoidance consultants” and companies “hostile to unions and collective bargaining on ideological grounds,” Logan testified.
In his prepared remarks, he cited Labor Relations Institute, Inc., one of the largest such firms in the country. He said Labor Relations Institute tells employers facing union certification elections that it will use “facts drawn from these documents” -- which are publicly available online -- to “convince your employees to vote ‘No’ on election day.”
“It's a shame the committee doesn't worry about widespread wage cheating by employers, nonpayment of overtime and misclassification of employees as independent contractors,” Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank partly funded by labor, told the Huffington Post. “It’s no secret that unions tend to give more to Democrats. Union members don’t need the time-consuming and intrusive reporting the Bush rules required to know that.”
The AFL-CIO, which challenged the Bush rules in court, considered the hearing such a “sham” that it didn’t send an observer to watch it.
“Republicans are clearly more interested in taking away the rights of working people than they are about creating jobs for the tens of millions of Americans looking for work,” AFL-CIO spokesman Josh Goldstein said in a conversation with the Huffington Post. “They are just putting on a show.”