Billions and Counting

The Wall Street Journal reports that big labor “spends about four times as much on politics and lobbying as generally thought.”  Generally thought?  The National Institute for Labor Relations Research has been highlighting this abuse of workers’ dues money for a generation. Yet it is great to see the mainstream media catch on.  The Journal says that they can account for $4.4 billions in political spending since 2005.  We know it’s higher than that.  As long as union bosses can spend workers’ money with impunity, they will.  The cure is not more government regulations.  The cure is to give workers a choice whether to contribute without coercion. 

Here is the groundbreaking story:

Organized labor spends about four times as much on politics and lobbying as generally thought, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis, a finding that shines a light on an aspect of labor’s political activity that has often been overlooked.

Previous estimates have focused on labor unions’ filings with federal election officials, which chronicle contributions made directly to federal candidates and union spending in support of candidates for Congress and the White House.

But unions spend far more money on a wider range of political activities, including supporting state and local candidates and deploying what has long been seen as the unions’ most potent political weapon: persuading members to vote as unions want them to.

This kind of spending, which is on the rise, has enabled the largest unions to maintain and in some cases increase their clout in Washington and state capitals, even though unionized workers make up a declining share of the workforce. The result is that labor could be a stronger counterweight than commonly realized to “super PACs” that today raise millions from wealthy donors, in many cases to support Republican candidates and causes.
The hours spent by union employees working on political matters were equivalent in 2010 to a shadow army much larger than President Barack Obama’s current re-election staff, data analyzed by the Journal show.

“We have always known that much of [unions’] influence comes from their political mobilization, but we have never been able to put a number on it,” said Bob Biersack, a longtime FEC official who is now with the Center for Responsive Politics. “They are a human force in the political process, but a lot of that falls outside the kind of spending that needs to be disclosed to the FEC.”

The traditional measure of unions’ political spending-reports filed with the FEC-undercounts the effort unions pour into politics because the FEC reports are mostly based on donations unions make to individual candidates from their PACs, as well as spending on campaign advertisements.

The limited nature of the disclosure grew out of a 1948 Supreme Court decision that, in the particular matter then before the court, spared unions and companies from disclosing the costs of political communications with their members or employees.

Unions spend millions of dollars yearly paying teams of political hands to contact members, educating them about election issues and trying to make sure they vote for union-endorsed candidates.

But much of unions’ spending on this effort-involving internal communication with members-doesn’t have to be reported to the FEC. It does, however, have to be reported to the Labor Department.

The reports to the Labor Department also take in a broader swath of political activity by including spending on campaigns that aren’t federal, such as for state legislatures and governors.

The top political spender, counting both what is reported to the Labor Department and what is reported to the FEC, was the Service Employees International Union. Unlike most unions, the SEIU has seen its membership grow-to 1.9 million last year from 1.5 million in 2005. It reported spending $150 million on politics and lobbying in 2009 and 2010, up from $62 million in 2005 and 2006.

About 54% of the political spending that unions report to the Labor Department consists of campaign donations to state and local candidates plus fees paid to consultants, attorneys and service providers, such as the U.S. Postal Service to deliver political mailings.

The remainder represents portions of the salaries of union officials and employees attributable to political and lobbying activities. In 2010, politics and lobbying accounted for at least 50% of the hours worked by 1,996 union employees; 940 employees spent all of their time on politics, the unions reported.

The reported hours worked in 2010 were equivalent to 3,242 full-time operatives with a payroll of $214 million, according to the Journal’s analysis.

Among the unions and labor federations, the five largest now devote greater portions of their budgets to politics and elections than they did in 2005, when the Labor Department first began tracking such spending. Politics and lobbying accounted for 13% of their total spending during the 2005-2006 election season. By the 2009-2010 cycle, this had risen to 16%.

Labor’s increasing focus on politics has helped make it a force despite the long-term decline in the unionized workforce. Only about one in eight U.S. workers now belongs to a labor union, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show, vs. about one in six 25 years ago. But union members turn out for elections. According to the AFL-CIO, about one in four voters this November will come from a union household.

Unions confronting threats are among the biggest political spenders. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees-which lost 77,000, or about 5%, of its members in 2010 and 2011-has faced job cuts by cash-strapped local and state governments as well as challenges to bargaining rights from governors, such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

Faced with challenges such as these, the union’s national headquarters boosted its spending on politics and lobbying to $133 million in the 2009 and 2010 election season, nearly twice the $75 million it spent in the 2005 and 2006 cycle.

“It makes sense that our political spending has ramped up over the last year and a half as our members have come under attack like never before,” said the union’s former political director, Larry Scanlon. He said it spends about two-thirds of its political budget on state and local politics.