When the Feds Won’t Protect Workers, Tennessee Leaders Should Step Up

Image Credit: Ford Media

By F. Vincent Vernuccio –

The Department of Labor has made a bold move to sweep union corruption under the rug. And unless state leaders step in, Tennessee workers may pay the price.

Effective January 31, unions are no longer required to report financial details about how they raise and spend money through union-controlled trusts, the health, pension or education funds meant to benefit union members. That’s because the Labor Department eliminated a transparency rule, the T-1 Trust Annual Report, which allowed union members and the public to see how unions use the money.

The transparency rule was needed for a reason – namely massive corruption scandals that rocked the labor world.

United Auto Workers has been at the forefront of these scandals. In recent years, multiple officials have pled guilty, been convicted and gone to jail for embezzlement and misuse of union funds. This includes two former presidents of the union.

When the Department of Labor under President Donald Trump issued the rule in 2020, it flagged “recent convictions of United Auto Workers’ and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ officials.” Had transparency requirements already been in place, department officials argued, the unions’ criminal acts might have been discovered earlier or even “deterred…entirely.”

Repealing those requirements on the heels of public scandal hasn’t set well with some congressional leaders. U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), the Republican leader of the House Education and Labor Committee, wrote that “even after the massive corruption scandal” Biden labor officials are “against transparency… of union boss spending.”

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For Tennessee workers, lifting transparency requirements could not have come at a worse time. While federal officials are busy limiting visibility into union finances, United Auto Workers is expanding its reach.

The union aims to get a foothold in the South, where autoworkers have repeatedly shot down United Auto Workers’ attempts to organize them. 

Just two months before the Labor Department’s decision to repeal transparency requirements, Ford announced a massive new electric vehicle complex in western Tennessee, with $900 million in taxpayer-funded incentives. The catch? The United Auto Workers has a neutrality agreement with Ford.

That means the union can organize workers without giving them the benefit of a secret-ballot election.

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Considered a fundamental right, secret-ballot elections allow workers to decide, free from peer pressure and coercion, whether to join a union. It also buys workers some time to think through their decision. And, given high-profile union corruption, that decision may be as significant as ever. 

But with the loss of both union transparency and the right to a secret-ballot election, these workers will have neither the information nor the time to weigh whether United Auto Workers should represent them.

That’s why state leaders can and must step in.

While it would not affect workers at the new Ford plant, proposed legislation in Tennessee would ensure that future companies receiving taxpayer funds also protect workers’ right to a secret-ballot election. This process is critical to allowing workers to think through their choices, free of coercion and deception. Lawmakers in other states would do well to consider similar measures.

The decision to join a union – or not – is a personal one, made more complex by recent corruption. If the federal government won’t require unions to disclose details that could inform workers’ decision, state leaders can at least safeguard their right to a secret ballot.

Unlike union executives, the average worker doesn’t have vast resources at their disposal. A secret ballot respects both workers and their hard-earned wages by providing time to sort through what information is available, space to weigh the options and privacy to decide what’s right for them.

About the Author: F. Vincent Vernuccio is senior labor policy adviser for Workers for Opportunity and president of Institute for the American Worker.

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