California’s public employee unions used their muscle this week to fight back a legislative bid to open their books, killing in committee a bill that would force them to post online how dues are spent -- and a second bill requiring a union vote every two years.
"These members want to belong to a union. They want to be represented by a union. They just want to know where their money's at,” said bill sponsor Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, a Republican.
The two bills went down Wednesday on a party-line vote, after dozens of union members came out against the legislation.
"The whole issue is not so much about these bills, but it's about right-wing billionaires fighting for their interest and fighting to stymie the rights of the union," testified Theresa Rutherford, of SEIU local 1021.
The fight, though, actually began with an internal complaint from a union member, five years ago.
At the time, Mariam Noujaim, a long-time state employee, noticed a crossing guard at the State Capitol on an empty street that already had a tunnel built under it for pedestrians. A self-described cheapskate, Noujaim sensed a waste of money.
She later learned it was a make-work job provided to her union, the Service Employees International Union or SEIU. She demanded to see their books. They refused. She sued – and later got involved with the legislation.
"This is my case," said Noujaim, an Egyptian immigrant. "Show me the money."
She and others are vowing to keep fighting for transparency and accountability, despite this week’s legislative loss.
SEIU is the state's second-largest public employee union with some 700,000 members statewide. In her lawsuit, Noujaim won but was only given access to the union's $60 million budget for a few hours and was not allowed to make copies or bring an accountant.
"Numbers are like a bikini. What they reveal is interesting. What they hide is vital," said attorney Mark Goudy. Her attorney also helped Noujaim contact Grove, who agreed to sponsor the ill-fated legislation.
"If they want to know why there's a $50,000 credit card bill and what's on it, why can't they know?" Noujaim asked.
One of the bills would have required public-employee unions to post detailed, itemized budgets online and to respond to members' written requests for more information. The second bill would have compelled public unions to hold elections every two years.
Grove called it necessary since fewer than 10 percent of workers today ever actually voted for the union currently representing them, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Nevertheless, some 30 union leaders showed up to attack the bills.
"We already comply with the law, we do what the law asks," SEIU lobbyist Randy Cheek testified. "We are totally open and transparent."
Rutherford, of SEIU local 1021, said the bills would "take away the voice of the employees."
Labor has immense influence in Sacramento, with Democrats in control of every statewide office and both legislative houses.
Rogue SEIU members Noujaim and Lisa Garcia – a colleague and fellow union dissident – are defeated but remain undeterred.
"Every single employee, I believe, in the state of California would rather take more of their money home as opposed to giving it to the unions," said Garcia.