Well-heeled corporate lobbyists. Powerful business interests. Eccentric billionaires with shadowy ideological agendas. When it comes to political spending, these figures dominate the popular imagination. Meanwhile, another player has largely managed to avoid public scrutiny while quietly assembling one of the most powerful political spending machines in the country. Big Labor’s reach has expanded dramatically, and unlike every other interest group, union bosses’ ambitious political agenda is bankrolled by employees who have no choice but to contribute.
Union politicos mask this influence by adroitly funneling their forced-dues dollars to a variety of political organizations that, at first blush, have nothing to do with organized labor. Take the Milwaukee-based organization Wisconsin Jobs Now! (WJN), a high-profile participant in the Badger State’s hotly-contested 2014 campaign season.
WJN organized a mid-October rally on the steps of the state capitol in Madison for Mary Burke, the union-label Democrat who was then running neck-and-neck with GOP incumbent Scott Walker. According to Wisconsin-based columnist Nick Novak, WJN also organized “a two-week voting drive where paid staffers [went] around the city of Milwaukee in vans to pick up Burke supporters and bring them to the polls early.”
Where does the money for these activities come from? WJN masquerades as just another citizen-led activist group, but its funding can be traced directly to Big Labor’s coffers.
According to an IRS disclosure form filed by WJN to maintain its tax-exempt status, the organization had revenues of roughly $1.05 million in 2013. (Information for 2014 is not yet available on-line.)
Much of this money can be traced to the Milwaukee Workers Organizing Committee, a union with no members that is bankrolled entirely by the Service Employees International Union. According to Department of Labor LM-2 forms filed by the MWOC in 2013 and 2014, it sent $1.13 million to WJN over that two year period.
For roughly a decade now, all unions that file federal LM-2 disclosure forms have been required to report how much they spend each year on electioneering and lobbying. Since the MWOC contributed $1.13 million in 2013-14 to the WJN, an organization that unabashedly focuses on electioneering and lobbying, most if not all of this contribution ought to have been recorded on the “political activities and lobbying” line of the MWOC’s LM-2s.
What were the MWOC’s actual reported expenditures on “political activities and lobbying” in 2013 and last year? Zero!
Once you unravel these connections, it becomes clear that the WJN owes roughly half of its funding to an SEIU front group. And the MWOC is just one of several member-less or virtually member-less SEIU affiliates set up by the union’s top bosses to discretely funnel money to a variety of activist groups. To determine how much money all international unions funnel into politics and lobbying while evading disclosure would require a large team of auditors. And so far, no one has ventured to assemble a task force for this purpose.
Even if you only look at the electioneering and lobbying expenditures union officials disclose in their LM-2s and other forms filed with federal and state agencies, it quickly becomes clear that Big Labor controls the largest political machine in America.
The National Institute for Labor Relations Research recently reviewed all LM-2 disclosure forms filed by unions for 2013 and 2014. Unions filing such forms reported spending a total of $1.01 billion in political activities and lobbying over those two years alone. This is union treasury money taken mostly from the paychecks of workers who have to pay union dues or fees to keep their jobs. These “contributions” pay for phone banks, get-out-the-vote drives, political mailings, and other so-called “in-kind” donations for union-favored candidates.
Meanwhile, many powerful government unions don’t have to file LM-2 disclosure forms. The Institute analysis added up political spending by public sector unions appearing in state campaign finance reports and came up with 2013-2014 expenditures totaling $564 million.
When you add PAC and “527 group” political expenditures not reported elsewhere, Big Labor has acknowledged pouring $1.7 billion into politics and lobbying over the past two years alone. And as we have just seen, union operatives actually funnel far more money into politics than they admit through shadowy activist organizations like Wisconsin Jobs Now! and the Milwaukee Workers Organizing Committee.
The size of the union political machine is extraordinary, but there’s nothing inherently scandalous about labor activists spending money on politics. The real outrage is that it’s financed by forced-dues and forced-fee money, often paid by workers who personally oppose the union-boss agenda.
Stan Greer is the National Institute for Labor Relations Research’s senior research associate.