Why I sued Labor Secretary Hilda Solis

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As a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, I'm more knowledgeable than most about the ins and outs of union finance.

In fact, I've learned some interesting things about my own local's spending habits over the years. Like the $2 million office condo they bought in Gaithersburg, or the fact that the president of my local makes over $200,000 a year, plus other undocumented benefits.

Across the country, millions of union members pay dues because they believe union officials are providing a valuable service to them. I have no disagreement with that.

In the 28 states without right-to-work laws, including my home state of Maryland, even nonmember employees can be forced to contribute to a union just to keep their jobs.

Unfortunately, workers like me have precious little information about how their hard-earned paychecks are being spent. That's why I was disappointed to learn that Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis abruptly reversed newly instituted union transparency guidelines before they went into effect.

My local union's questionable spending habit isn't an isolated problem. In 2008, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that Tyrone Freeman, then president of the Service Employees International Union's 160,000-member California affiliate, embezzled over $1 million from unwitting SEIU members.

Another Chicago Sun-Times investigation found that $25 million from five union pension funds were diverted to political organizations, strip clubs and Las Vegas getaways.

In 2009, while many workers were struggling through the worst economic conditions in recent memory, the AFL-CIO hosted its annual convention at the posh Miami Beach Fontainebleau Hotel.

These stories are shocking, but the occasional newspaper headline is no substitute for real transparency. Without stringent disclosure requirements, union members and nonmembers alike are left at the mercy of union officials who have the power to collect dues without being held accountable for how that money is spent.

The public reporting guidelines Solis jettisoned included several common-sense additions to the Labor Management Relations Disclosure Act of 1959.

Under the proposed guidelines, union officials would have to disclose how much individual compensation they receive in the form of benefits, account for any travel and entertainment expenses, and identify union income streams.

The fact is most workers want more information about how their money is being spent by union officials. Last year, a poll revealed that nearly 90 percent of union members support strong union transparency requirements.

Disclosure is a simple but effective tool for fighting corruption and encouraging accountability. If union officials know their spending habits are part of the public record, they'll be less interested in expensive getaways and more interested in effectively managing their members' hard-earned dues.

That's why I filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to stop Solis from rolling back these vital union transparency requirements. Union officials shouldn't be allowed to operate behind closed doors when billions of dollars of employees' hard-earned money is at stake.

If you pay union dues, you have a right to know how your money is being spent, whether you're a voluntary member or a nonunion worker who has to pay up to keep your job. If almost 90 percent of union members see the need for transparency, why can't Hilda Solis?

Chris Mosquera is a county government employee in Maryland.

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