By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Political operatives in the Department of Labor are using federal reporting requirements to undermine trade unions and conduct a "political misinformation campaign" against them, a report released yesterday charges.
While the Bush administration has generally relaxed federal regulations, the department's Office of Labor-Management Standards has done the reverse, beefing up disclosure rules, staff and investigations of union leaders and members, the study by the left-leaning Center for American Progress said.
The study criticized the reporting requirements as designed to overwhelm unions with paperwork and trick them into noncompliance. It also accused the office of inflating the number of criminal cases involving union leaders and members.
The report was triggered by the office's latest requirement, new conflict-of-interest reports that, as of Jan. 1, would require a broad pool of union members to attest that even their car loans do not constitute a potential conflict.
The standards office has been led since 2005 by Don Todd, a former Republican National Committee strategist. Todd is credited with helping George H.W. Bush win the presidency in 1988 by convincing Lee Atwater to use a television ad featuring furloughed murderer Willie Horton and portraying Bush's Democratic challenger as soft on crime.
The standards office upholds a 1959 statute that tasks the Labor Department with enforcing union financial reporting requirements and investigating their finances.
"The Center for American Progress fails to recognize that Congress enacted the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act . . . in 1959 with the express purpose of safeguarding the hard-earned dues of union members and their right to democratic union elections," Department of Labor spokesman Richard Manning said in an e-mail.
"In an era of greater transparency, the Office of Labor Management Standards . . . serves a vital purpose in protecting rank-and-file union members by enforcing the LMRDA, which has resulted in over $100 million in restitution of union members' dues since 2001," the spokesman added.
Republicans have previously considered using the office's regulations to target unions, which have historically tended to favor Democratic candidates.
Yesterday's report cites a 1992 memo from former House speaker Newt Gingrich to then-Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, urging her to boost the office's reporting requirements to "weaken our opponents and encourage our allies." Republican adviser Grover Norquist has said that "every dollar that is spent on disclosure and reporting is a dollar that can't be spent on other labor union activities."
Center for American Progress senior fellow Scott Lilly, who authored the report, said, "It's hard not to look at this and think there's a real effort to make life as uncomfortable and difficult as possible for people who lead or work for labor unions."
Lilly said the amount of information required from unions has increased by about 60 percent since Todd took over.
The findings drew sharp criticism of the standards office from union backers in Congress.
"It's unconscionable that laws meant to protect employees have been turned into tools for harassing them," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The proposed conflict-of-interest reporting form for union leaders would be expanded Jan. 1 from three to nine pages, said Bill Samuel, director of legislation for the AFL-CIO, which represents 10 million unionized workers.
The AFL-CIO estimates that 100,000 more union members would be newly required to submit the form, which he said classifies as union "leaders" even shop stewards who volunteer to serve on health and safety committees or to negotiate labor contracts.
Those members and their spouses and children would have to confirm, for example, whether lending institutions holding their mortgages or car loans do significant business with their union or another company represented by the same union, he said.
Samuel said the AFL-CIO has appealed to Congress to block the coming requirements.
Most workers don't have the time or ability to satisfy the requirements, Samuel said.