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Paying Dues

The Democrats settle up with their union bosses.

12:00 AM, Jul 25, 2007 • By BRYAN O'KEEFE
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EVEN THOUGH HOUSE Democrats campaigned on promises to improve ethics, promote greater transparency and disclosure, and fight corruption, it now appears they will not require some of their top campaign contributors to live by those same vows.

In a galling political move, the House voted down an amendment last week that would have restored funding for the Office of Labor and Management Standards (OLMS), an office within the Department of Labor. That means OLMS's budget will be slashed by about 20 percent next year. And OLMS isn't just any ordinary office. Under the Bush administration, OLMS has led the charge on requiring greater union financial disclosure and transparency and fighting union corruption.

OLMS was instrumental in updating the LM-2 form, a union financial document required by DOL. Before the current administration, the form itself had not been updated in decades and unions were generally lackadaisical in turning it in at all. OLMS made changes to the document that accurately reflected the financial sophistication of today's labor unions, required individual unions to document expenses and membership numbers, listed salaries for union officials, and mandated that the form be filed with the Department in a timely manner.

The result is that today any rank and file union member can log on to the Department of Labor's website and look up detailed financial information about how their dues are being spent. Never have the "average Joes" in labor unions had so much useful and readily accessible information about their unions.

OLMS has also been instrumental in fighting corrupt union leaders. Its work has helped prosecutors win convictions in corruption cases and returned to union coffers money that unsavory labor leaders tried to pilfer.

While all of this might sound noble, one constituency has not been enamored with OLMS: union bosses. Suffice it to say that all of this talk about financial disclosure, transparency, and corruption has made many labor leaders quite uncomfortable. Much of the financial reporting has also brought to light embarrassing information about the ways that union leadership spends members' dues. Many union leaders would prefer to have their members in the dark about how many golf outings, "retreats" at lavish resorts, and fancy dinners they have enjoyed on their dime.

OLMS is nothing more than an annoyance to labor leaders, and they have been eager to find a way to muzzle the office. Union leaders first fought OLMS in federal court over the financial disclosure rules but lost that battle. So, now, they have turned to their Democratic friends in Congress and asked for help in derailing OLMS. With union contributions being key to Democratic political fortunes, labor's allies on the House Appropriations committee have been willing to slash OLMS's budget.

What makes these budget cuts so obviously related to OLMS's oversight of unions is that the Democrats have actually added $935 million dollars to the original administration budget request. It seems that the Democrats have no problem with spending taxpayer dollars on DOL. They just don't want that money to fund oversight of their campaign contributors.

It's also noteworthy that labor unions are trying so hard to keep their own books secret when they have aggressively lobbied to require greater financial transparency from publicly traded corporations. OLMS's reporting requirements pale in comparison to Sarbanes-Oxley. It's clear that labor wants to promote one stringent standard for companies but live by another.

The real losers in this fight however are the rank and file union members. They work hard and pay their dues. They should have the right to know what their leaders are doing and how they are spending their financial resources.

Unfortunately, disenfranchising regular workers seems to be a trend for organized labor in this Congress. Earlier this year, Democrats tried to push through a bill that would have eliminated a worker's right to a secret ballot election. That bill also would have prevented union members from even voting on contracts in some circumstances.

Even though that legislation was eventually defeated, it's clear that labor unions are trying every tactic to increase their membership and escape public and governmental scrutiny. And the irony is that it's just this type of arrogant behavior that makes workers reluctant to join unions in the first place--that and the dues.