Teaching Profession

Labor Dept. Proposes to Heighten Scrutiny of Teachers’ Unions

By Julie Blair — July 09, 2003 4 min read
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Leaders of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions are fighting proposed modifications to federal labor regulations contending that they would not prevent the kind of wholesale embezzlement that allegedly took place within the Washington Teachers Union and United Teachers of Dade over the past few years.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., questions a Labor Department official during a hearing on the fallibility of accountability systems in detecting alleged abuses in teachers’ unions.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

Instead, the union officials argued at a congressional hearing last month, the new rules would eat up millions of dollars otherwise spent on member services.

Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee called the hearing to determine how current accountability systems failed union members. They also wanted to know how pending revisions to regulations under the federal Landrum-Griffin Act, enacted in 1959 to provide oversight of private-sector unions, would affect teachers’ unions and those who belong to them.

The proposed changes, under consideration since shortly after allegations of financial wrongdoing surfaced in the District of Columbia union in December, would require more detailed reporting about a union’s finances, said Don Todd, the deputy assistant secretary for the office of labor- management standards in the Department of Labor. The new rules, which do not need congressional approval, are expected to become final in September, he said.

The hearing was held six months after the American Federation of Teachers took over the WTU following allegations that local union officials, as well as their relatives and associates, had embezzled more than $5 million from 1995 until last fall.

In addition, the AFT took the reins of the 16,000- member United Teachers of Dade in Miami in May. Officials there had asked for help upon learning of allegations that its longtime president had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars. UTD is also affiliated with the National Education Association.

Oversight of a Few

The AFT has no history of such scandal, Sandra Feldman, the president of the 1.2 million-member union, told members of the Senate committee. That record, she said, is proof that the current accountability system works in a majority of cases.

“The best insurance against [misdeeds] is for the members to be active and involved,” Ms. Feldman said, such as looking at the many financial documents available to them and voting out of office any of their leaders who aren’t doing a good job.

That line of argument presupposes that those running the union have integrity, countered Damaris Daugherty, the executive director of the Miami- based Teacher Rights Advocacy Coalition, or TRAC, which hopes to replace UTD as the Miami-Dade County teachers’ bargaining unit.

What’s more, she said, unions like UTD are exempt from federal scrutiny.

Only a fraction of local and state teachers’ unions are big enough to fall under federal oversight, which includes submitting financial disclosure forms. Should the new rules be adopted, those unions would have to meet tougher regulations from the Labor Department. Even then, only about one-third of those unions would have to itemize every payment made over a likely threshold somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000, Mr. Todd said.

Most unions do not meet the criteria requiring that they be audited by the Labor Department because they have neither private employees on staff nor budgets greater than $200,000, Mr. Todd said. Of the country’s 17,000-plus local, state, and national teachers’ unions, only 176 must file financial-disclosure forms with the Labor Department. And of those, only 51 would have to meet the new requirements. The other 125 would submit a simplified form.

The AFT, the NEA, and the WTU would have to comply; the Miami-Dade local would be exempt because it does not contract with private employees.

Policing Their Own

Even with the proposed changes, the responsibility would fall, as it does now, to the unions’ state and national organizations to police their own affiliates.

The AFT, for its part, requires audits of its nearly 3,000 affiliates at least every two years, and documents are kept at both national and local headquarters for all members to review, Ms. Feldman said. Under new AFT rules put into effect last month, the national union now reserves the right to order an independent audit, among other measures. (“Teachers’ Union to Require Audits of Locals in Arrears,” June 11, 2003.)

The NEA requires its state affiliates to submit annual financial reports, and those affiliates are responsible for keeping tabs on the locals.

Denise Cardinal, a spokeswoman for the 2.7 million-member union, said the NEA already does enough to ensure that impropriety does not occur.

The proposed rule changes would “reveal a host of sensitive decisions that could easily jeopardize the union’s bargaining and organizing strategies,” said Tom Donahue, a senior fellow for the Work in America Institute, a nonprofit organization based in White Plains, N.Y., and a former secretary-treasurer for the Washington-based AFL-CIO. The changes would cost each union member $96 per year, he said at the hearing.

Moreover, he maintained, the proposal is impractical. “The changes won’t do anything to stop misappropriations if the people filling out the forms are intent on defrauding the union.”

Some, however, see the benefits of having tighter controls, despite the small number of unions that would have to abide by them. “It may be a burden,” Ms. Daugherty of TRAC said, “but it is a cost of doing business.”

Meanwhile, 32 of the NEA’s state affiliates have challenged a separate Labor Department “clarification” that says affiliates are subject to the reporting regulation if their parent organizations include private workers.

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