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Big Labor’s Big Bucks

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Last week, the New York Times reported that “labor leaders say they will mount their biggest campaign effort, with far more union members than ever before—at least 400,000, they say—knocking on voters’ doors to counter the well-endowed ‘super-PACs’ backing Republicans.”

photo of money

Prior to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision loosening campaign finance regulations, union members were allowed to knock only on the doors of other union members. Now they’re canvassing all voters. While many have decried Citizens United for unleashing a torrent of corporate money in elections, critics are oddly silent about the fact that it also gives union bosses even more freedom to spend. 

Of course, union manpower has always provided huge amounts of in-kind support for Democratic campaigns—unions claimed to have 250,000 door-knockers in 2008. Despite some restrictions on this kind of advocacy, unions regularly took advantage of their lack of enforcement. 

In any case, if you really care about the corrupting influence of money in politics, your beef is with union bosses. Since 1989, 12 of the top 20 donors to political campaigns have been unions. Unions spent over $400 million on elections in 2008, and nearly every penny went to Democrats. They spent over $200 million in 2010, and the single largest donor in that election was the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which spent $87.5 million. AFSCME has already pledged $100 million for the upcoming election. As AFSCME is a public employee union, that means the largest funder of Democratic campaigns is you, the taxpayer. Once upon a time Democrats—and even the AFL-CIO’s former president John Sweeney—opposed this kind of public sector union campaigning on principle. 

If you don’t think that all this money is corrupting, you haven’t been paying attention to the Obama administration’s stimulus, health care, and bailout giveaways to unions. And what about the National Labor Relations Board trying to bar Boeing from building a factory in a right-to-work state?

Recall that in April 2010, when Democrats still had control of Congress, they tried to pass the DISCLOSE Act. The bill would have instituted all kinds of restrictions and disclosure requirements for corporate political donations. But the legislation would have allowed unions to transfer unlimited funds among affiliated groups to pay for political ads with no disclosure whatsoever. Additionally, companies that received TARP money would have been banned from giving. GM couldn’t write checks, but the United Auto Worker beneficiaries of TARP funds could. DISCLOSE also would have curbed donations by employees at private companies receiving more than $10 million in government contracts. Public employee unions, however, would still be free to give generously. We were saved from this brazen act of hypocrisy only because Republicans had the necessary 41 votes in the Senate to prevent the DISCLOSE Act from passing.  

It’s worth remembering that unions no longer represent the interests of the American worker. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this year that union membership has fallen to a 70-year low—11.8 percent of the workforce. Of that total, the majority are now public sector workers. And private sector union pension plans are $160 billion in debt, even as their union reps pour hundreds of millions into campaigns. 

In October 2010, when the Wall Street Journal first reported that AFSCME was America’s biggest political donor, that fact quickly became a standard talking point as voters headed to the polls to hand Democrats the worst party defeat since the end of World War II. If voters understand that union bosses are our most corrupt special interest and that Democrats are utterly beholden to them, it’s likely to be a winning issue for Republicans in 2012 as well.

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