Unions like to play up the fantasy that they stand for “the little guy.” But that illusion quickly fades when labor leaders have to deal with those little people, and especially if those people are members of the union.
The latest exhibit is Mariam Noujaim, an Egyptian immigrant and member of the 95,000-member SEIU Local 1000, which represents the state employees of California. Since 2010, Noujaim has been on a quest to take a look at the local’s books in order to determine if the union has been wasting member dues. Jon Ortiz of the Sacramento Bee, who covers labor in California, reports:
State employee Mariam Noujaim said the tussle with her union started with a question: Why does the state pay for crossing guards to work on a lightly traveled street between two DMV buildings connected by a tunnel?
“I really believe we can help solve our crisis by spending our money on monitoring the waste rather than bribing political and special interest (groups),” Noujaim wrote in an indelicate April 2010 email to her Service Employees International Union Local 1000 representative.
Under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) any private sector union member has the right to see his or her union’s required federal financial filings as well as the “supporting records” if there is “just cause.” But that’s no help to Noujaim—since she is in a public sector union, such disclosure is not required. Under federal law, public unions must provide an IRS Form 990 and a more detailed Hudson notice—an independently audited report showing how the union dues are calculated. Under California Corporations Code Section 8333, Noujaim has the right as a member of the union to inspect the books “for a purpose reasonably related to such person’s interests as a member.”
After spending $18,000 of her own money and months and months in court, Noujaim was finally able to view Local 1000’s records—with limitations, of course:
After two years of legal battles to force SEIU to open its books, Noujaim and fellow activist Lisa Garcia had half a day to riffle through credit card records and expenditure statements from 2009 and 2010. They were not allowed to take photos, make copies or take anyone else to view the documents.
What was it that helped Noujaim to earn the “suspicion” of the local?
“She supported Meg Whitman,” [union spokesman Jim] Zamora said, referring to the 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate whose name became a virtual epithet among state workers for her promise to cut 40,000 state jobs and tear down public pensions.[emphasis added]
This would be serious cause for concern for a private union. As far as we can tell, federal law doesn’t distinguish the rights of union members based on their political affiliation—despite what union political spending records may suggest.
Noujaim’s website www.helpsaveourstate.com, alternatively known as “OCCUPY SEIU,” has chronicled her journey to make the union responsible to its members. Noujaim said that what she was able to see on Tuesday showed large expenses for hotels, restaurants, and travel, which she viewed as potentially unnecessary, excessive spending. Noujaim believes that the union could and should work as a watchdog to fight waste throughout the California government, as its employees are on the front lines.
On its website, Local 1000 encourages members to blow the whistle on “wasteful private vendor contracts” in order to help the state save money (and to give the jobs to government union employees). But the union doesn’t want to be open to the same critique. You’d be hard pressed to find any detailed financial information on the union, and what you can find is only readily available through another website.
Accountability and transparency are near the bottom of labor’s priorities. Instead, unions prefer to focus on political activity and personal attacks. Noujaim would like to see labor improve:
“They’re becoming a special interest group so we’re trying to go back to the original goal and purpose of the union to work for their members not to be a special interest group and work for politicians.”
This isn’t the first time that Local 1000 has been in the news this year. Another California state employee, Dianne Knox, opposed a special fee for politics assessed against her, a “fair share” member. The case, Knox v. SEIU Local 1000, was decided 7-2 in her favor in late June after several years of litigation.
Only days later, Local 1000 agreed to cut the compensation of union members in exchange for more time off. The union’s leader, Yvonne Walker, had a tough go of it explaining those cuts to members, though eventually, 65 percent of them did. The bad times that labor has endured in November seem to pale in comparison to SEIU Local 1000’s bad year.
But Noujaim should count herself lucky, considering the only tactic used against her was stalling. Members of SEIU Local 1000 were accused of attacking another state employee-critic in 2009. The victim, Ken Hamidi, dared to question where dues were going, especially after a 50-percent increase.