Improving labor transparency helps workers
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Rep. Francis RooneyLaurence (Francis) Francis RooneyGOP leader taking proxy voting fight to Supreme Court Pricing carbon can help solve the infrastructure funding dilemma Allies of GOP leader vow to oust Liz Cheney MORE (R-Fla.) recently introduced a bill to bring much-needed transparency to front groups acting on behalf of the labor unions that support them. The Accountability for Represented Workers Act (H.R. 5665) would close the so-called “worker center” loophole that organized labor increasingly has used in recent years to avoid the democratic practices and financial transparency required by law. Closing that loophole would ensure that unions and their allied groups cannot skirt those requirements.

The need for transparency in the labor movement became evident in the 1950s, when the McClellan Committee revealed corruption, fraud, and other inappropriate behavior by leaders of labor organizations at the expense of their membership. As a result, Congress passed the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, or LMRDA, which created strong protections for workers in labor unions. The Department of Labor was given the responsibility to enforce the LMRDA.

The protections of the LMRDA, however, only become meaningful if groups purporting to represent workers are treated as labor organizations subject to the law. For that reason, Congress provided a deliberately broad definition of what constitutes a labor organization. It also identified several examples of organizations that fall under that definition to ensure that certain organizations would not evade the law’s coverage. 

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What Congress did not foresee, though, was the emergence of the modern worker center. These groups have proliferated in recent years, and while they are not new, in the past they were typically non-profit, community-based organizations that offered a variety of services to their members, including education, training, employment services and legal advice.

Today’s worker centers often have very different characteristics, and in many cases they receive much of their funding directly from traditional labor unions. Worker centers also have engaged in raucous demonstrations and other disruptive activities in order to pressure employers to accede to their demands, much like labor unions have been known to do. 

The modern worker center increasingly has become the public face of organized labor. By creating what appears to be a grassroots movement, these organizations avoid the reputation of the traditional labor union and use this model to attempt to skirt the regulatory framework that the LMRDA requires. 

In the past, the Department of Labor did not pursue worker centers despite their growing demands to employers. Instead, it previously adopted an erroneous interpretation of the law despite its own regulations and its LMRDA interpretive manual, which states that even informal groups can be labor organizations “irrespective of size or formal attributes.”

In a 2008 letter evaluating one particular worker center, the department incorrectly determined that the organization did not fall under LMRDA’s coverage. In doing so, the department ignored the fact that an organization does not need to have or seek a collective bargaining agreement with an employer in order to be classified as a labor organization. It also wrongly found that because the organization did not fit one of the several examples laid out in the LMRDA that it was not a labor organization, even though the LMRDA manual makes it clear that an organization need not match those examples to fall under the law.

Rooney’s bill would fix these errant interpretations of the LMRDA by clarifying the definition of a labor organization to prevent labor-backed groups from escaping the oversight that Congress intended. By bringing worker centers that engage with employers under the law’s coverage, the bill would add important protections for workers who choose to associate with those groups. 

One can expect that worker centers and their union allies will vehemently resist this added scrutiny. Assuming they have nothing to hide, however, their protests would seem unwarranted. If the additional oversight helps workers understand more about the finances of these groups and participate more democratically, then Congress will have done its job by passing the Accountability for Represented Workers Act.

Sean Redmond is Executive Director of Labor Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.