If undue influence in politics piques your interest, then the recent Los Angeles County elections should have raised both your eyebrows. Outside special interest groups spent almost $4 million supporting the candidates’ electoral bids — and over three-quarters of that total came from the region’s labor unions.
The AFL-CIO played its cards, and played them well. Its post-election press release congratulated the candidates it supported: “All candidates endorsed by Labor in Los Angeles achieved positive ballot results in the 2013 city elections.”
“Endorsed” may be the wrong word. Try “funded,” or more pointedly, “owned.” As the Los Angeles Times noted, labor “already wields considerable influence” in city government. There are short odds that unions’ unflinching support in the election will dilute that power.
Union spending sprees like this are all too common. In New York City’s 2009 elections, which saw contributions of over $ 35 million, eight of the ten biggest spenders were labor unions or labor-backed groups. In neighboring New Jersey, unions accounted for 68 percent of the special interest spending in the 2010 gubernatorial election, out of a total of $24 million. Similar stories can be found across the country.
The sums are astronomical at the national level. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, organized labor spent $89 million in 2008, $86 million in 2010, and a whopping $177 million last November. Organized labor isn’t wasting any time on 2014, either: unions have already spent $5 million on federal campaigns gearing up for the 2014 elections.
But those figures are just what unions are reporting to the Federal Elections Commission. Beyond mere political contributions, unions also fund “political education” — member persuasion, voter drives, etc. And thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, labor unions are quickly becoming heavyweights in the business of unreported, limitless political spending, which they publicly bemoan. When you take this into account, the amount that unions spend on politics more than triples.
Influence-wise, there’s no doubt about who enjoys the lion’s share of labor’s cash. In the last three elections, between 91 and 93 percent of union money went to Democrats. In fact, that number has dropped below 90 percent only twice since 1990 — but only to a not-so-low 88 percent.
Compare those figures to the usual targets in an “undue influence” diatribe — corporations. By contrast, corporations gave 55 percent of their PAC money to Democrats in 2008. Some influence. Unlike businesses that have a variety of political interests that dilute the overall influence of their political largess, labor’s political agenda is tightly focused on a short list of self-serving issues like card check and the grossly misnamed Employee Free Choice Act.
But all of these numbers and percentages miss the most important point: Union members aren’t in agreement with how their unions spend their money.
That’s where the real issue lies. Exit polling from 2012 indicates that 40 percent of union households voted for Mitt Romney. Even Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker — the most hated man in America, according to union officials — received 38 percent of the union-household vote.
This points to a gaping chasm between union officials’ political agenda and their members’ personal ideology. And despite the former’s best efforts, it’s a gap that hasn’t even been closed by the millions of dollars unions spend on “member education” drives.
Given this disconnect, it’s no wonder that union membership is declining and calls for labor reform are on the rise. Still, bills like the Employee Rights Act, which would re-align the interests of union members and union officials through various national reforms, are met in Congress by overwhelming opposition from the labor-funded candidates, who use every procedural means to keep meaningful reform at bay.
This deadlock hasn’t stopped union members from questioning whether collective bargaining is worth the hijacking of their dues for political outcomes they don’t support. They have continued to vote in elections beyond the union hall — and in a state like Wisconsin, their votes have actually been decisive in the battles over labor reform. It would be refreshing if Congress demonstrated some of that same reforming spirit.
Richard Berman is the executive director at the Center for Union Facts.