- - Friday, March 22, 2013

A massive embezzlement case in Mexico involving the leader of Latin America’s largest labor union should send shivers up and down the spines of American workers. It should also force the administration of Barack Obama to reexamine its ongoing kowtowing to union bosses – most notably the continued erosion of worker safeguards against union corruption.

At the heart of the Mexican scandal is Elba Esther Gordillo. Since 1989 Ms. Gordillo has led the 1.5 million-member Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), Mexico’s education workers’ union. The 68-year-old, who is known simply as “la Maestra” (or “the teacher”), has long dominated Mexico’s government-run school system – earning a reputation for ruthlessness and flamboyance.

In fact, prior to the passage of recent reforms, Mexico permitted its government teaching positions to be sold and inherited like personal property – and bestowed upon Ms. Gordillo’s union power over hiring, promotion and salaries.

Ms. Gordillo leveraged these provisions into a base of unrivaled political power – while using the dues of the workers she “represents” to live in opulence far beyond her $2,500 monthly salary. Aside from the luxury handbags, expensive jewelry and designer high-heels for which she has long been known, Ms. Gordillo allegedly owns a $4 million waterfront home in Coronado, a $1.7 million home in San Diego, expensive works of art and her own private jet, among other amenities.

Last month, Mexican authorities arrested Ms. Gordillo disembarking from her jet following a trip to San Diego – where she allegedly has spent $2.1 million at a Neiman Marcus department store over a three-year period beginning in 2009.

According to Mexican attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam, Ms. Gordillo has engaged in the “systematic embezzlement” of $159 million worth of union funds during her reign. This elaborate plot is said to involve foreign companies registered in the name of Ms. Gordillo’s mother – companies which purchased properties and other items in support of the union leader’s lavish lifestyle.

“We are looking at a case in which the funds of education workers have been illegally misused, for the benefit of several people, among them Elba Esther Gordillo,” Mr. Karam said.

Ms. Gordillo’s case should serve as a wake-up call to the Obama administration – which has spent the last four years working to dismantle union reporting requirements in the United States. These efforts reached a fever pitch during last year’s “December massacre,” when Barack Obama’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a flood of constitutionally dubious pro-union rulings targeting workers’ rights.

In one of these rulings – the Kent Hospital case – the NLRB effectively invalidated a 1988 Supreme Court ruling banning forced employee subsidization of their lobbying and political activities. The ruling also stripped away strict definitions of what constituted “lobbying and political activities” – effectively leaving these definitions at the unions’ discretion. Making matters worse, the Kent case held that unions no longer had to provide employees with a detailed accounting of these lobbying and political activities – creating a “perfect storm” for corruption.

In another case the NLRB overturned a 34-year precedent protecting witness statements obtained by employers during internal misconduct investigations – requiring that these confidential documents be turned over to the unions.

The board also overturned a 50-year precedent when it ruled employers must continue collecting dues even after the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement.

All of these decisions were made by a board operating without constitutional authority in light of Mr. Obama’s extra-legal recess appointment of two of its members.

These rulings are intended to breathe new life into the American labor movement – which continues to lose members. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, union membership is at its lowest level since 1916 – slipping all the way down to 11.3 percent in 2012. In fact, only 6.6 percent of the private sector workforce is currently unionized – a record low.

Meanwhile big, right-to-work wins in Michigan and Indiana have put a dent on union prestige – while the failure of union leaders to oust Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in a 2012 recall election has demonstrated the weakness of its political operation. Mr. Obama recognizes all of this – and is acting swiftly to restore union clout. Of course, he’s also stripping away any semblance of accountability over union leaders – creating a “Wild West” environment in which corruption like what we are currently witnessing in Mexico is free to run rampant.

“La Maestra” would approve.
Bill Wilson is president of Americans for Limited Government.

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