Union Bosses Leave Worker Advocacy Behind

This op-ed column was originally published at TheHill.com

Rick Berman, CUF Executive Director

Labor leaders talk a big game to justify their stranglehold on American workplaces. Take AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka: “Solidarity can mean the difference between life and death.”

Hyperbole aside, union bosses project the image that they are America’s premier worker advocates—fighting for coal miners and protecting fast-food employees from Big Business. But 2016 union disclosure documents paint an entirely different picture.

According to the financial reports of three major labor unions—the AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and National Education Association (NEA)—Big Labor spends huge sums of money on implicitly political advocacy far removed from worker “solidarity.”

In 2016, Trumka’s AFL-CIO sent nearly $700,000 to Catalist, a leading Democratic Party data firm founded by Harold Ickes—a former Hillary Clinton aide—and supported by none other than George Soros. The AFL-CIO also sent about $338,000 to New Partners Consulting—a political consulting firm run by former Democratic Party officials—and more than $292,000 to the Pivot Group, a Democratic direct mail firm. (Pivot lists Clinton’s presidential campaign as one of its clients.) Even worse, the AFL-CIO classified a $108,480 payment to ShareProgress as a “representational activity.” What is ShareProgress? A “progressive” technology firm serving the “political left.”

The country’s two largest teachers unions—the AFT and NEA—joined the party. Randi Weingarten’s AFT sent $300,000 to the Philadelphia 2016 Host Committee—the organizer of the Democratic National Convention—and $500,000 total to the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative. The Center for Popular Democracy—a left-wing advocacy agenda pushing for so-called “racial and economic justice”—received $373,000, while the pro-abortion Emily’s List made off with $125,000. Is that Trumka’s “life and death” issue?

The NEA chipped in with another $627,000 to Catalist and $510,000 to the Philadelphia 2016 Host Committee. The New Media Firm, another Democratic consultancy, received a whopping $1.5 million from the teachers union this year.

What does it all mean? Big Labor’s line items remind us that labor unions have devolved from worker advocacy organizations—the advocates for a 40-hour workweek and safe working conditions—into Democratic Party subsidiaries, flooding liberal bank accounts with political advocacy funds.

And they’re leaving union members in the dark. While Center for Union Facts research shows that 99 percent of union advocacy funds support Democrats and liberal special-interest groups, roughly 40 percent of union members vote Republican in any given election cycle. In 2016, 43 percent of union households supported Donald Trump. The most recent NEA survey of public school teachers found that 55 percent of teachers characterize themselves as “conservative” or “tend to be conservative.” So much for “representing” your members.

As it stands now, union members voluntarily donate to Democratic candidates and super PACs. But the same is not true of thinly veiled political advocacy: An employee represented by an AFL-CIO member union must explicitly object to donating dues dollars to the union’s advocacy budget. Current labor law makes opt-in automatic, while opting out is a road paved with union intimidation—labor officials are notorious for bullying and coercing employees into supporting a union’s agenda.

That’s why the 115th Congress will likely reintroduce the Employee Rights Act (ERA), labor legislation protecting employees from unapproved political advocacy spending. The ERA would require union officials to obtain prior approval before sending member dues to Catalist, ShareProgress, and other implicitly political groups. Unsurprisingly, the ERA’s political protection clause registers over 80 percent approval among union households.

Today’s union bosses are not your workers’ champions of the past. The Employee Rights Act would finally hold them accountable.