One of the ways that supporters of California’s Prop 32, the Trojan horse initiative to silence union activity in elections while facilitating corporate campaign spending, will probably press their case publicly is by claiming that unions spend ungodly amounts of money on politics. And unions in California do represent a counter-balancing of corporate cash. But this Wall Street Journal article takes this claim to the absurd extreme, arguing that union spending is “much larger than expected” by counting every single expenditure ever made as a political activity.
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.
Laura Clawson does a good job debunking this. The article counts money on bratwursts to feed protesters at the state Capitol in Wisconsin last year as political spending. I had a couple of those brats the week I was up there, and so I guess as a beneficiary of such spending I’m biased. But that doesn’t seem to meet with the spirit of “political spending.” Neither does the lobbying work on state worker safety regulations, or campaigning for federal legislation, which is also counted here. You can count all this as part of the work that unions do, but if you compare it solely to direct SuperPAC spending from corporations and not their wide range of political influencing activities, you’re comparing apples and oranges. Not to mention the fact that unions must account for every cent of their spending with the Department of Labor, while much corporate spending isn’t disclosed.
Now, there’s an argument to be made, and Hamilton Nolan does make it, that, regardless of how their political spending stacks up to corporate spending, union resources should be shifted toward organizing more workers rather than politics. But that’s why it’s important to understand that much of the “political” spending included in this analysis is for things like preventing Ohio’s anti-union Senate Bill 5 from becoming law, or preventing anti-union legislation, successfully or not, in states like New Hampshire and Indiana. In these cases, political spending is basically a precondition for organizing any workers. Unions are in a bitch of a double bind. If they don’t spend on politics, Republicans are more likely to be elected who will pass any law they can think of to make union organizing illegal or impossible. But the more resources they spend on things other than organizing workers, the fewer workers they will organize.
The AFL-CIO responded to the WSJ piece, including the fact that the report double-counts money (counting local and federal resources that are the same dollars as different amounts). But I think this will just be used as another zombie lie by the right to hype up a “massive political army” from an organization that has shrunk in size from the middle of last century, when nearly 1/3 of workers in the private sector were organized, to about 7% today.