Is "big labor" a menace to democracy?
The Democrats: A Critical History, examines the Wall Street Journal's claims about labor and elections--and the real balance of political power., author of
IN CASE you thought that billionaire-funded Super PACs were skewing U.S. elections toward pro-corporate conservatives, the Wall Street Journal wants you to know that the real problem with the American political system are those big, bad unions.
In a July 10 feature, Journal reporters Tom McGinty and Brody Mullins claimed:
Organized labor spends about four times as much on politics and lobbying as generally thought...a finding that shines a light on an aspect of labor's political activity that has often been overlooked.
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.
This union political activity amounts to the creation of "shadow army" for President Barack Obama's reelection, McGinty and Mullins conclude.
There are plenty of reasons why the labor haters at the Wall Street Journal would spend the time and money to pore through the government statistics that show up--in however distorted a form--in the article.
On the one hand, it serves the Journal's ongoing defense of the corporate domination of elections--something that the Supreme Court made even more egregious with its 2010 Citizens United decision that overturned already-ineffective constraints on business participation in politics. The Journal's answer to criticism of the Citizens United ruling is, in effect: "Don't worry, labor unions are just as powerful as corporations."
On the other hand, the insinuations about "shadow armies" and political spending that isn't reported to the Federal Election Commission feeds the Journal's ideological crusade against unions. For conservative ideologues who won't be satisfied until there are no unions left in the U.S., the Journal feature supports the picture of "big labor" as the bogeyman against whom noble "job creators" must do battle.
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WHAT SHOULD we make of the substance of the Wall Street Journal analysis?
First, as the Daily Kos labor editor Laura Clawson pointed out, the Journal built its case by classifying almost every aspect of union advocacy as "political"--and possibly by double- and triple-counting the money that labor organizations spend.
Second, the "false equivalence" between corporate and labor spending that the Journal wants to claim can't change the simple fact that business political donations outstrip labor's by a factor of 15-to-1, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
What of the contention that unions' support to (predominantly) Democratic candidates goes beyond the dollar amounts in contributions they report to the Federal Election Commission? This is hardly a revelation, let alone a "scoop." Anyone who has the slightest knowledge about unions and elections knows that labor donations are much less important to Democratic candidates than the person-hours union members contribute through phone-banking, door-knocking, driving voters to polls and other "get out the vote" activities.
If a similar database existed on the political activities of evangelical mega-churches, a Journal-like analysis would show an even bigger gap between the minimal money contributions to conservative Republicans and the hundreds of thousands of person-hours spent on organizing people to vote for the GOP.
But, of course, there is no such database on the activities of mega-churches, nor on the activities of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce--which illustrates how class-biased and anti-union the U.S. electoral system is.
The data for the Journal hit job on unions was gathered from reports that were mandated by a Republican-majority Congress, which the George W. Bush's Labor Department enforced, starting in 2005. Under this legislation, unions are required to document virtually every penny they spend. McGinty and Mullins were even able to pinpoint money unions spent on bratwursts made for protesters during the Wisconsin Capitol occupation in 2011!
Contrast that to the post-Citizens United world where anonymous billionaires can spend unlimited money on attack ads; where outfits like the Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS Super PAC can shield its donors under the fiction that it is a "social welfare" organization; or where Congress can't even pass simple legislation requiring corporations to put their names on the ads they pay for.
And by the way, as Zachary Newkirk wrote at the OpenSecrets.org website, "[W]hen it comes to the government lobbying efforts of most religious institutions, their activities are notably shrouded in darkness." That's because of the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act, passed under an earlier Republican-led Congress, which exempts them from having to report most of their lobbying.
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HAVING CLEARED away some of the myths in the Journal piece, we're left with the reality that labor does contribute a lot of time and money to support the election of Democrats. In a period where unions are fighting for their lives, we might ask if that's really a wise use of labor's dwindling resources.
To the AFL-CIO and major unions, there's little question on this score. Of course, the money spent on Democratic politics is "worth it." At least Democrats pay lip service to labor's priorities, while Republicans seem to want to do away with unions altogether.
Still, "lip service" is a pretty thin reed on which to hang spending millions of dollars when unions' survival is on the line.
Author Mike Davis once called the relationship of labor and the Democrats a "barren marriage." That phrase referred to the quarter century after the Second World War, when the Democrats actually supported expansions to Social Security and the creation of Medicare. Labor may not have won some of its highest priority items during these years--such as the repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act--but it still formed part of a "labor/liberal/civil rights" coalition that provided political support for an expanding postwar welfare state. And with a quarter to a third of the workforce unionized, politicians actually had to pay attention to unions.
Today, the relationship between labor and Democrats might be more accurately described as "abusive." Aside from rhetorical nods to "working families" and "the middle class" in campaign speeches, the Democrats offer next to nothing to labor in practical terms.
Labor went all out to support Barack Obama's election in 2008. But three-and-a-half years into Obama's term, the unions can count many more betrayals than successes.
The Employee Free Choice Act to make it easier for unions to organize new members? The Democratic Congress didn't even put it up for a vote. The auto industry bailout that Obama trumpets as such a success story? On the orders of the administration, thousands of autoworkers were laid off and the jobs that were "saved" now pay far below union wages of the past. Union-negotiated health care benefits? Those will be taxed as "Cadillac" benefits under Obama's new health care law. The 2012 Democratic convention? Scheduled for North Carolina, a right-to-work state.
That list could go on and on. Yet despite all this, the AFL-CIO and major unions are gearing up for their most extensive and expensive effort yet behind Obama's reelection. Once again, union members will be the human material on which the Democrats rely to get supporters to the polls. In many areas in the country, the Democratic Party wouldn't have any tangible presence at all, save for the efforts of organized labor.
Today's labor leaders have an election-oriented political strategy, but no industrial strategy. That was certainly evident in the recent recall debacle in Wisconsin. With mass protests, strike action and an occupation of the state Capitol, workers, students and others managed to bring the anti-labor assault of right-wing Republican Gov. Scott Walker to a standstill in early 2011. But instead of relying on the same methods to force Walker's offensive into retreat, labor leaders helped Democrats divert the Wisconsin uprising into recall elections. With this, labor lost leverage, momentum--and, ultimately, the fight.
Organized labor's resources are too finite to be continually wasted on politicians who have no interest in standing with working people. That's why unions would gain far more if they spent those resources on expanding their ranks and building the capacity of their members to struggle on their own behalf. What would have the bigger impact if the unions devoted millions or billions of dollars to it: Re-electing Barack Obama or organizing an anti-union stronghold like Wal-Mart?
A unionized Wal-Mart? That's a "shadow army" the bosses would really worry about.