Today may well turn out to be a major turning point in the history of the labor movement, and not because Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA) will face questions at her Secretary of Labor confirmation hearings in the Senate. No, the bigger story is the voice vote conference call Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern has scheduled for 2 pm today. If things go the way Stern plans, the SEIU board will approve the forced break up of the third largest SEIU affiliate in the country, SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW). The UHW’s sin? Their leader, Sal Rosselli, has been a big critic of Stern’s leadership. The Los Angeles Times reports:

[Critics] say Stern’s push to centralize control over the 2-million-member union created conditions for abuses. They say his consolidation of locals into bigger and bigger chapters has reduced SEIU democracy, and thus limited the ability of rank-and-file members to monitor and challenge officers they suspect of unethical conduct. “When your union is less democratic than the Teamsters, you have to look in the mirror and say, ‘What happened?’ ” said Ken Paff, national organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform group. Paff said the “mega-locals” formed under Stern’s administration have made it nearly impossible for dissidents to collect enough money or candidacy signatures to run against incumbents in union elections. … Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at UC Santa Barbara, has lauded Stern’s accomplishments over the years, but sympathizes with Rosselli. He said Stern’s consolidation program “lends itself to a more autocratic leadership style.”

So at a time when even labor activist leaders are worried about the democratic future of the labor movement, the stewardship of the Department of Labor during the next administration will be particularly important. Unfortunately, after spending $16.5 million to elect President-elect Barack Obama and another $85 million to elect a Democratic Congress, big labor is pushing a far reaching agenda that reduces transparency, oversight, accountability, and democracy. Solis should face tough questioning on all of these issues:

Preserving the Right to a Secret Ballot: Organized labor’s highest legislative priority is the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act, which effectively replaces traditional secret ballot organizing elections with publicly signed cards. Workers would have to voice their choice in public, in front of union organizers, exposing workers who do not want a union to pressure, threats, and harassment from union organizers. This legislation is popular with union bosses but opposed by large majorities of workers. Solis should explain how taking away private ballots could possibly protect workers?

Misuse of Worker Pension Funds: The AFL-CIO wants the Department of Labor to “rescind all 2008 guidance regarding the legal standards imposed on pension plan fiduciaries when considering investments in “economically targeted investments” and “the exercise of shareholder rights.” These guidelines provide important protections for workers, preventing union officials from misusing workers’ pension funds for their benefit while imperiling workers’ retirement. Will Solis continue to require unions to manage pension plans in the sole interest of workers and maintaining strict fiduciary responsibilities on union pension managers?

Union Financial Transparency: This past August the president of the largest SEIU local in the country, former-Los Angeles local member Tyrone Freeman, resigned after the Los Angeles Times revealed that Freeman fleeced his fellow union members — who make about $9 an hour caring for the infirm and disabled — of over $1 million in 2006 and 2007 alone. When questioned about their knowledge of Freeman’s crimes, the SEIU responded: “Until we read these allegations in the L.A. Times, nobody ever brought before us serious credible evidence of wrongdoing.” Clearly unions are completely incapable of policing their own. The Department of Labor recently revamped union financial disclosure forms so that they now provide meaningful information to union members about how their dues are spent. The LAT uncovered Freeman’s fraud by examining discrepancies in these new LM-2 forms. Now union lobbyists want the Department of Labor to rescind those regulations. Will Solis commit to keeping the existing financial disclosure requirements in place?

Union Accountability: Over the past eight years, the Department of Labor has increased the amount of money spent to audit union books to ensure they are accurately reporting their finances. As with businesses, audits hold unions accountable and discourage fraud and corruption. However the AFL-CIO wants the Department of Labor to conduct fewer audits and is lobbying to have the amount of money spent auditing union books cut. Does Solis believe cutting funding for the amount of money spent auditing books is the best way to protect union members?

The benefits to union bosses of increased unionization and decreased union oversight are clear. If just Wal-Mart’s United States work force of 1.4 million were unionized, that would mean an additional $500 million a year in union dues for the Andy Sterns and Tyrone Freemans of the world to play around with. Our struggling economy can not afford such invitations to corruption, fraud, and waste. Workers deserve a union watchdog, not a big labor lackey.

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