(Note: This commentary originally appeared in The Detroit News on April 17, 2008.)

A lax state law is making it difficult for rank-and-file members to monitor the activities of their own unions. Michigan lawmakers need to reform labor laws so unionized workers and others can hold their workplace representatives more accountable for how they run their unions.

Consider the problems encountered by Danny Layne and the APA Watch Group. This independent coalition of members of the Administrative Professionals Association—a Michigan Education Association affiliate that represents the 1,700 administrative and professional employees like engineers, computer technicians and other noninstructional staff at the Michigan State University campus—is protesting a controversial election for its union’s executive board.

The watch group, which wants transparency and better governance within the union, alleges that APA Chairman Leo Sell used the union’s membership list to send an improper e-mail critical of challengers for positions on the executive board (which selects the chairman), and that a confusing ballot favored incumbents.

APA Watch filed a protest with the MEA and, according to Danny Layne, a leader in APA Watch, the MEA agreed that the ballots were improper.

But while the MEA did require a new vote for one APA officer, it did not call for a new executive board election.

This was followed by a contract ratification vote in which Sell allowed members to vote by e-mail. The Watch Group filed a protest with the MEA, arguing that the APA charter calls for votes by regular mail. According to Layne, the MEA rejected this protest, allowing the ratification vote to stand.

The APA Watch Group also has alleged numerous irregularities in the APA’s governance: numerous resignations from the executive board, board meetings held without notice to members, meetings during work hours when most APA members are unable to attend, and written records of votes and resolutions not made available to members.

The Watch Group claims to have submitted enough signatures so APA members could vote on three revisions to the union’s bylaws. It wants direct election of the president by members, a recall of the current executive board and a requirement to put a certain percentage of union dues in escrow.

These are hardly the demands of an anti-union group. The watchdog organization’s goal is to "be active, proactive and help better (its) union."

A well-run union has little to fear from fair elections or transparency. Union members should expect such things. And because of the unique legal status granted to labor unions and protection from antitrust laws, government should support members if union officials fail to provide them.

The APA controversy highlights a major flaw in Michigan labor law—the absence of ways to keep union officials accountable to their members.

That’s not the case at the federal level, where there is a Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, which requires annual financial statements from union officials and establishes basic standards for the election of union officials, who must either be chosen by secret ballot or by union delegates who themselves are elected via secret ballot.

But the federal law applies only in the private sector. Unions representing state and local government employees in Michigan are governed by state law, which means that most unions that represent government employees in Michigan, especially at the local level, do not have to file financial reports or meet federal standards for self-governance.

All of this makes life more difficult for government employees, like those at the APA Watch Group, who want to know just what the union is doing as their representative in the workplace.

Even if union officials are on the up-and-up, the lack of transparency breeds mistrust and creates an environment where union assets could be misused.

APA’s 1,700 members annually pay more than $900,000 in dues to a union that is supposed to represent them. They deserve a complete accounting of what the union is doing in on their behalf.

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Paul Kersey is director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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