Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., Nov. 5, 6 or 7
Another damaging U.S. Supreme Court ruling, a California ballot initiative, and rich extremists’ massive campaign contributions are combining to threaten American workers. Unions and their progressive allies are trying to fight back.
The Supreme Court’s 7-2 ruling in Knox vs. SEIU Local 1000, decided in June, would hamper labor by limiting member dues – unlike corporations (which use shareholders money almost any way they choose).
The ruling “would diminish the financial power of organized labor by restricting union dues used for political action,” said journalist Bill Moyers. “Like the fight in Wisconsin and other states, it focuses on public sector unions – in part because they’re the greatest remaining bastion of labor’s power.”
Meanwhile, California’s Proposition 32 would effectively exclude unions from political activity, according to Robert Balgenorth of California’s State Building and Construction Trades.
“Proposition 32 cripples unions, but has no effect on corporations,” he said. “They make their contributions from their profits, outspending labor 15 to 1.”
Indeed, wealthy conservative individuals dominate progressive groups in fund raising on national and state races. For instance, Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam have contributed more than $36 million to Super PACs, according to a U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) analysis of Federal Elections Commission (FEC) data. In contrast, top labor donations to Super PACs, the FEC said, are: the AFL-CIO $2.3 million, SEIU $1.9 million, AFSCME $1.2 million, CWA $1 million, AFT $700,000, UNITE/HERE $500,000 and NEA $500,000.
PACs (political action committees) are organizations that campaign for or against political candidates, ballot initiatives or legislation, first set up by labor in the 1940s after federal laws prohibited direct union campaign contributions. People donate separately to PACs.
Super PACs, unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, may not make contributions to candidate campaigns or parties, but may engage in unlimited political spending “independently” of the campaigns.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.) said, “What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires and the corporations they control: ‘You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we’re going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government’.”
Organized labor alone or in coalitions is trying to balance Big Business’s billions.
The Teamsters union over the last 10 years has spent $33 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). SEIU has contributed to a Super PAC that bought $4 million in commercials supporting President Obama. And the building trades nationally have given at least $6 million to labor-friendly Super PACs, according to the New York Times.
Unions and their supporters are now spending more. Political action committees representing unions contributed $73 million for political activity in 2008, but have spent almost $2 billion since then, according to the CRP.
Here in Illinois, the top 20 campaign contributors shows 7 from organized labor, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics: The Illinois Education Association $750,000, Illinois Laborers $553,000, SEIU Healthcare Illinois $371,000, Illinois Federation of Teachers $350,000, Fire Fighters $327,000, AFSCME Council 31 $260,000, and Construction and General Laborers District Council of Chicago & Vicinity $211,000.
General trade unions together gave $2.7 million, with another $2.4 million from public-sector unions, totaling $5.1 million. That’s less than the $5.7 million from eight influential industries: Lobbyists/lawyers $1.6 million, electric utilities $970,000, Hospitals/nursing homes $864,000, Telecom $682,000, Health professionals $618,000, Real estate $541,000, Insurance $387,000, and Retailers $357,000.
That may seem comparable, but a closer look shows that it’s no “level playing field.” In recent Illinois elections, compare what Labor was able to contribute to candidates and what came from Business, “FIRE” (Financial, Insurance and Real estate) and Communications/electronics together: In 2006, Labor gave $18.5 million but the Business groups gave $37.8 million; in 2008, Labor gave $14.8 million but the Business groups gave $22.6 million; in 2010, Labor gave $30 million but the Business groups gave $34.1 million.
In Illinois, labor faces not just Big Business and the GOP, but Democrats like Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who increasingly seem like fair-weather friends. Quinn and Obama both have been disappointing, especially in the former’s dealings with state-employee unions, attempts to close prisons and efforts to hurt public pensions, and the latter’s failure to push the Employee Free Choice Act when Democrats had a Capitol Hill majority and failure to help in workers’ struggle against Wisconsin’s right-wing Gov. Scott Walker.
“The fact is, the labor movement at large has not been happy with Obama because he hasn’t done enough for them,” labor historian Mike Smith of Wayne State University told the Christian Science Monitor. “On the other hand, what’s the alternative?”