Advocates of American federalism have traditionally viewed the states of the United States as "laboratories of democracy" in which different policy prescriptions can be tried.
The following analysis by Robert P. Hunter, a nationally known labor law expert and director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, in Midland, Michigan, is a strong contribution to that tradition. Hunter proposes that the state of Michigan adopt a Union Accountability Act, which would protect workers' rights by bringing financial disclosure and accountability to the relationship between workers and labor unions.
While the policy change Hunter advocates is limited to state and local public-sector unions in Michigan, the model legislation he offers blazes a trail for other states to follow and certainly offers federal reformers a model to work with.
The basic problem Hunter addresses is that unions are not very accountable to those who finance them. It's ironic that unions, set up to empower workers, provide far less financial information to their memberswhose mandatory fees support themthan a publicly held corporation must, by law, provide to its shareholders. This lack of accountability frustrates the ability of workers to protect their right not to have their dues or fees used for matters, such as political causes, with which they may disagree. These constitutional rights were recognized in a series of Supreme Court cases, including the 1986 case, Chicago Teachers v. Hudson, in which the Court established procedures to safeguard public school teachers' right to pay only a limited fee to their union.
It is often stated that Supreme Court decisions are not self-enforcing. The unfortunate fact is that when workers have no practical access to information on how their unions spend their dues money, there is no way they can intelligently exercise their Hudson rights under the law. As things currently stand, Hudson largely provides American workers a right without a remedy.
The fact that unions do not have to disclose their expenditures in any meaningful way does more than just thwart workers' rights under Hudson and related cases. The secrecy and lack of accountability that cloaks union bookkeeping has made possible what The New York Times recently called "a wave of union corruption." From rampant embezzlement at the local level to the theft of more than $800,000 in Teamsters funds to help steal a national election, union corruption has reached epidemic proportions. Indeed, my own organization publishes a biweekly web newsletter, Union Corruption Update, which never runs short of news of indictments, convictions and investigations having to do with union corruption.
Robert Hunter's analysis of the problem points the way to the only just solution: ensuring that workers have access to accurate information as to how their money is being spent by the union. Invoking the late Supreme Court Justice Brandeis' dictum that "sunlight is the best disinfectant," Hunter's review cogently spells out exactly the type of disclosure needed to truly empower workers.
Thwarting corruption and protecting workers' constitutional rights are worthy goals. Empowering workers so they have the means to find out how their union spends their money is not only an appropriate remedy to a longstanding problembut also is in keeping with the values of a democratic society. If Michigan were to adopt legislation dispelling the darkness that surrounds union finances, it would light the way for other states and the federal government to follow.