Yesterday I got an interesting email from the Department of Labor. The DOL is soliciting ideas for “Open Government.”

“Open government” ranks right up there with “jumbo shrimp” or “civil war” in the oxymoron department. I’d love to see an estimate of the carbon footprint of the Freedom of Information Act. I know we send in thousands of FOIA requests each year to try to get supposedly “public” documents from our government.

The email from DOL says its goal is to increase, “transparency, collaboration, and participation within DOL as part of the White House Open Government Initiative.” They invited me to share my ideas online. As opposed to just sharing them on the DOL website, I thought I’d share them with our readers. There’s a heck of a lot more people reading this newsletter (9,604 subscribers today, with new subscribers every day) than those commenting on the DOL site. The most popular item – allowing DOL experts to speak publicly – has 60 votes.

This particular email came from the Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS) who, in their own words:

“…enforces standards for union democracy, including provisions for union officer elections; protects union funds and assets; and ensures financial transparency by enforcing public reporting requirements. “

So far the OLMS agenda has been exactly the opposite of “open government” or transparency, at least as it relates to union democracy, protecting union funds and assets or enforcing public reporting requirements.

For example, among the first things proposed by the Solis Department of Labor is to rescind reporting requirements on union trust funds because these reporting requirements are “burdensome” on unions. I’d suggest they aren’t nearly as burdensome as it is trying to untangle the massive web of commingled assets, fiduciary conflicts and just plain mismanagement of union trust funds. How the OLMS can talk about open government and transparency with a straight face is beyond me.

In its place the DOL is asking to reinstate the old, unhelpful reports that were provided before the T-1 requirement was imposed. Rest assured that other reporting requirements on the LM-2 Form will go on the chopping block as union officials complain about additional “burdens” like having to report on large individual transactions or on time spent on political or non-representational activities.

The thing that always amuses me about this discussion is how it always centers on the burden created for union officers. What about the union members? I wish I could tell the IRS that I’ve decided not to do my taxes because it is too burdensome.

Of course it is burdensome to do this reporting. It is especially a burden on the union officials who have something to hide from their members about how they are spending union dues or pension money. That’s the whole point of these requirements – to increase transparency and openness of unions to their members.

Another key problem with the current reporting framework is that the DOL does virtually nothing to ensure that these reports get filed at all – or that there is any penalty for late or non-filing. Thousands of these reports go unfiled each year, but there is no effective way to tell. That is the simplest possible step that OLMS could take right on its website. This would allow members to see whether their union is complying with reporting requirements.

I’ll probably post a couple of these ideas on the Open Government website, just for fun. Speaking of oxymorons, all I expect to hear is the sound of “deafening silence.”

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