Big Labor Flexes its Political Muscle

This op-ed column was originally published at

Rick Berman, CUF Executive Director

On Tuesday, labor unions will hold a “national day of disruption,” planning protests at 20 airports and fast-food restaurants in 340 U.S. cities. The union-backed Fight for $15 — the chief organizer of the protests — hopes to convey Big Labor’s “unrelenting opposition” to President-elect Trump’s “extremist agenda to move the country to the right.”

It’s another not-so-subtle reminder of Big Labor’s outsized influence in the political system. In recent months, labor leaders have pulled out all the stops to make their presence known — from strikes and disruptive demonstrations to an unprecedented increase in political cash.

In 2016, labor unions made more than $142 million in campaign contributions — almost 90% of it to Democrats. (The 2004 and 2008 elections saw less than $140 million combined.)

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the National Education Association — America’s largest teachers union — led the way with nearly $20 million to date. Richard Trumka’s AFL-CIO wasn’t far behind at roughly $11.5 million, while the Service Employees International Union — the primary supporter of the Fight for $15 — pledged $3 million of its own.

Union organizers were especially active in battleground states, which they flooded with pro-Democrat digital advertising, direct-mail pieces, and door-knocking campaigns. The AFL-CIO carried out a six-figure ad buy and distributed 500,000 fliers in the key swing states. In Ohio, For Our Future — a $60 million super-PAC backed by the AFL-CIO and other unions — knocked on well over a million doors in support of Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates.

Yet 2016 exit polls show the Democratic nominee was supported by only 51% of voters in union households, while Donald Trump captured 43% of those votes. The eight-point gap is a stark departure from 2012, when Barack Obama won union households by a whopping 18%. That same year, President Obama won Ohio’s union households by 23 percentage points. In 2016? Clinton lost the state’s union households by nine percent.

Labor leaders’ political focus points to the gradual evolution of unions from worker advocacy organizations to Democratic Party subsidiaries — increasingly beholden to Democratic elites instead of blue-collar employees. And it confirms the ever-growing divide between union leadership and their members. While Trump was cast as “an anti-American bigot,” the Republican nominee went on to win Ohio’s union households by nearly double digits.

Union political spending also transcends direct campaign donations in election years. According to newly released Center for Union Facts research, labor leaders sent nearly $530 million to Democrats and closely aligned liberal special-interest groups from 2012 to 2015 — 99% of their entire advocacy budget. The Democratic Governors Association received over $10 million, while Catalist — the Democratic Party’s go-to data firm — raked in more than $7 million. Advocacy groups run by Al Sharpton (National Action Network) and Jesse Jackson (Rainbow PUSH Coalition) received hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years.

The $530 million in advocacy spending comes straight from member dues — still mandatory in non-right-to-work states — and theoretically reserved for collective-bargaining purposes. But current labor law permits union bosses to bankroll implicitly political causes while disguising it as worker advocacy. It leaves the substantial minority of union members who vote Republican footing a political budget in direct conflict with their beliefs.

This democracy gap corrupts our political system. While union employees can affirmatively support or refrain from contributing member dues to liberal super-PACs, the same is not true of Big Labor’s political advocacy budget, which funds left-wing think tanks and advocacy groups generally supportive of the Democrats’ agenda. Under current labor law, union employees are essentially forced to support the National Action Network, Rainbow PUSH Coalition and others without giving prior approval.

It’s precisely why legislators have introduced the Employee Rights Act (ERA), legislation which would update federal labor law to protect employees from unapproved political spending. The ERA — now supported by 170 members of Congress — would require union officials to obtain opt-in permission from their members before spending dues dollars on political activities unrelated to collective bargaining. This would ensure workplace democracy where there currently is none. Unsurprisingly, the bill’s political protection clause registers over 80% approval among union households.

As Tuesday’s protesters fight for “worker justice,” they should recognize that labor reform is the only way to achieve it.