Those who believed President Obama’s promise that “transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency” should have been almost immediately dissuaded of this notion early in his administration.
Early on, Obama, at the behest of his labor union bosses, rolled back several hard-fought reforms that increased the information available to union members on how their unions spend members’ dues money.
Obama did this even though the disclosure is mandated by the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959.
Under this law, the secretary of labor is given the responsibility to promulgate regulations that provide for disclosure of unions’ financial activities.
During most of the years of this law's existence, however, only summary financial data was required to be reported.
That changed when the now-rescinded regulations were promulgated by the Labor Department during the second Bush administration.
While some of these reforms have survived, massive holes in union financial transparency were created by Obama's actions early in his administration.
Earlier this week, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced the Union Transparency and Accountability Act, which would reverse Obama's rollbacks in transparency and add additional protections for union employees who uncover wrongdoing.
If enacted, Thune’s bill would restore full transparency requirements on items such as union executives’ compensation packages, transparency that while expressly required by the LMRDA, was eliminated by the Obama administration.
Technical changes that make embezzlements harder to hide would also be reinstated by Thune’s bill.
Also disclosed would be more situations involving conflicts of interest, such as the practice of “union leave” or “no docking,” where a union demands that an employer pay one of its employees not to perform productive work for the employer, but instead to handle union business.
Many times, this results in union officials receiving “no show” jobs from the employer. This practice, while always questionable at best, was recently held illegal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and for good reason.
As another circuit judge noted, these payments to union officials cause a conflict of interest because “union negotiators may agree to reduced benefits for the employees in exchange for financial support for the union.”
Given the choice between faithfully representing the union’s members — the ostensible purpose for the existence of the union in the first place — and padding the union’s own coffers, some officers will choose the latter.
Obama’s appointees decided that union members didn’t need to know when their employer is paying for employees to work for the union because doing so, in their words, “imposes a substantial burden on union officials.” Thune’s bill would right this wrong.
Additionally, Thune’s bill would restore financial information on union trusts such as strike funds, training funds, building funds, and educational funds.
Due to their structures, many of these funds, while covered by the LMRDA, were exempted from disclosure by the Obama administration's regulations.
As the Labor Department previously noted when it initially provided for disclosure from these trusts, there are numerous examples of them being used for improper purposes, including embezzlement of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Another problem Thune’s bill will help fix is that of unions filing their disclosure reports late. The delinquency rate on reports required under the LMRDA is high.
The Thune bill provides for fines for missing deadlines, much like what occurs if an organization fails to meet its filing deadlines with other agencies such as the IRS.
Finally and importantly, Thune would provide protections to union employees who uncover wrongdoing and blow the whistle on this conduct.
While the LMRDA contains protections for union members against reprisals, protections for union employees are missing.
By adding in whistleblower protections for union employees, they will be more willing to do what is necessary to clean up their unions by blowing the whistle on wrongdoing. These protections for union employees who find wrongdoing are long overdue.
Thune is to be commended for taking up this issue, restoring the union transparency and accountability that the Obama administration has taken away, and providing greater protections for union employees.
It is time for Congress to restore the union transparency that Obama stripped away.Nathan Mehrens is president of Americans for Limited Government and previously served in the U.S. Department of Labor overseeing union transparency issues.