One of New York City’s largest public-sector unions has been effectively taken over by its national parent after an audit revealed extensive financial mismanagement. It’s the latest example of misconduct made possible under New York’s public-sector collective bargaining rules that force the government to collect hundreds of millions of dollars annually without any safeguards on how the funds are spent. 

A draft audit of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1549 finances prompted the parent union to place the local, which represents about 17,000 clerical employees in city government, in receivership. Details were first reported by the city-based journalism nonprofit THE CITY. The audit document shared by THE CITY details, among other things, questionable payments to consultants and alleged misuse of the union’s credit card. 

New York has seen at least 40 other similar incidents since 2009 at state or local government agencies involving the theft or misuse of union funds. Just last year, two other city government unions were rocked by similar scandals. 

Federal prosecutors in February charged Edward Mullins, head of the NYC Sergeants Benevolent Association, with pocketing over $500,000 in alleged fraudulent reimbursements. Steven Whittick, the former treasurer at NYC’s Law Enforcement Employees Benevolent Association (LEEBA) pled guilty to federal charges related to embezzling union funds. His alleged co-conspirator, LEEBA president Kenneth Wynder, is awaiting trial. 

What’s notable in the case of Local 1549 is that cases of alleged misconduct typically become known only when law enforcement gets involved—meaning union officers often escape prosecution in those cases that are resolved internally. For instance, the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) quietly closed the books on a case in Essex County where a union president wrote checks to himself for non-existent expenses. More recently, a pair of White Plains police officers appear to have escaped prosecution after repaying the union a total of more than $256,000. 

New York’s system of deducting dues on behalf of unions all but invites bad behavior because government agencies are required to deduct and remit hundreds of millions of dollars in dues annually to groups with no questions asked, and no accountability measures. 

Other states, such as Michigan, have taken local governments out of the dues deduction business altogether and instead made union membership a private business matter between the unions and their members. New York would do well to pursue this same route. 

While union dues are ostensibly voluntary, state law makes it difficult for people to withdraw consent for paycheck deductions by allowing unions to set arbitrary rules about when or how employees can turn them off. Making it hard for public employees to withhold their dues limits the utility of what should be their best tool for demanding union accountability. 

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