The Stiletto's Sharp Idea

Secretaries of labor, if they are republicans, generally come and go quickly. Organized labor and its many congressional allies are so relentlessly hostile to Republicans, the secretaries grow weary of constant guerrilla warfare, and depart: their average tenure since 1960 is just 24 months--less than half the 47-month average for Democratic secretaries.

But the current secretary, Elaine Chao--as slender as a stiletto, and as steely--is not going away. She is the first real conservative to serve as Labor secretary. One reason John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, says he has "never seen a secretary of Labor who is so anti-labor" is that Chao wants to compel union leaders to provide useful information to union members about how their mandatory dues are being spent. She proposes strengthening the reporting requirements of a 1959 disclosure law.

The junior senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, made his support for that law central to his presidential campaign. He served on (and his brother Robert was on the staff of) a Senate committee that had drawn attention to union corruption. Think such corruption is a thing of the past? Visit the Labor Department's Web site,, and peruse the one-paragraph summations of about 290 convictions since October 2000.

But some unions' disclosures--they have to file only one form a year--are derisory. The National Education Association, the teachers union, repeatedly said it spends no money on political activities. Perhaps. But the NEA's disclosure form discloses--if that is the right word for something so uninformative--that in 2001 the NEA disbursed $68,712,248 for what are described simply, not to say opaquely, as "contributions, gifts and grants" to "state and local affiliates." It might be nice if the disclosure form disclosed to the NEA's members, whose salaries supplied that sum, an itemized account of what it went for.

The NEA's form can be viewed on NEWSWEEK's Web site (NEWSWEEK. MSNBC. com), as can that of New York's Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union. It discloses that in 2001, one of the local's largest disbursements was of $3,927,968 for, well, "sundry expenses." Not illuminating. But providing members with more information would be, according to defenders of unions' reticence, unduly burdensome.

Hypocrisy often is waist-deep in Washington. But the spectacle of people defending fiercely opposing the disclosure of truthful information, and thus opposing the rights of union members to know the disposition of their own dues, is notable for the purity of the hypocrisy. Some of these people have rarely met a regulation they did not like--as long as the regulations apply to business or political activity. Many supported last year's Sarbanes-Oxley legislation which, responding to Enron, Arthur Andersen and other scandals in corporate governance, imposed vast new reporting and auditing burdens on businesses.

Twenty-eight Republican members of Congress with union strength in their districts have told Chao that her proposed reporting requirements are "costly" and "unduly burdensome" and: "We believe that union resources are best utilized when representing members," not disclosing what they are doing with members' money. Would they argue that publicly traded corporations' resources are best used producing and marketing goods and services, not providing transparency for investors? Twenty-seven of the 28 voted for Sarbanes-Oxley.

Would they argue that the funds raised by political parties and campaigns (often more than 10 percent of campaign funds go to cover the costs of complying with campaign regulations) would be better used on communications with voters? No, they would not. They all comply with myriad disclosure rules. And 12 of the 28 voted for the most recent elaboration of campaign-finance regulations. Only regarding labor unions do these people argue that there must be an either/or choice between disclosure and performance of the disclosing institutions' functions. Only regarding labor unions do they argue that transparency is a negligible, indeed dispensable, value.

Chao's proposed regulations, which would apply only to the largest fifth of unions and locals, would also require unions to report what their salaried employees do--how their time is allocated. Why would Sweeney object to this? Because the contribution of such persons' time to political campaigns is a way of evading restrictions on contributions of what liberal campaign-finance reformers say is wicked--soft money.

Sweeney excoriates Chao's transparency rules, but demands "transparency and accountability by company managers to the constituencies that depend on them." Arguing recently for imposing yet another transparency requirement on businesses, Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, warned businesses not to "look like you don't want to disclose because you have something to hide." Said the kettle, calling the pot black.