Richard Trumka, the burly president of the AFL-CIO, believes the climate for an upsurge in union organizing couldn’t be better. And just to make sure that the federation and its member unions can take advantage of opportunities to get out the pro-union vote, Trumka (see photo) and top officials are laying the groundwork for their own version of what is fast becoming the ultimate campaign fundraising tool: a political action committee (PAC) which, unlike a standard PAC, faces virtually no limits on individual contributions. These “Super PACs,” as they are known, have sprung up at warp speed in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling early last year. It’s yet another example of how unions now function as much as political as economic forces.
Labor political spending is hardly negligible. During the 2007-08 election cycle (i.e., the most recent cycle involving a presidential election), unions and their political action committees spent about $400 million on preferred candidates and party organizations. This figure does not even include various in-kind expenditures such as phone banks, mass mailings, media advertising and voter education projects. Most of this money flows into Democratic coffers. Indeed, this has been the pattern for many years. According to the nonpartisan financial tracking group, opensecrets.org, 95 percent of all union political donations since 1990 have been to Democrats.
Union campaign budgets are likely to grow, and at an increasing rate. The catalyst here is a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January 2010, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The High Court, on free speech grounds, invalidated a section of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 – i.e., the McCain-Feingold Act – that bars PACs from broadcasting election-related advocacy within 60 days of a general election or within 30 days of a primary election. The 5-to-4 decision reversed a District of Columbia federal court ruling two years earlier that blocked a nonprofit group, Citizens United, from airing a film critical of Hillary Clinton and from using her image in TV advertisements for the film. Corporations, unions and nonprofit groups, the court concluded, should have the right to set up PACs that can provide unlimited and anonymous support to campaign organizations, though not candidates themselves.
Thus, the Super PAC was born. And it’s been thriving as an alternative to the regular PAC, which remains circumscribed by McCain-Feingold rules. Even Comedy Central TV faux-newsman Steve Colbert recently received permission from the FEC to start one. Arguably most of the attention so far has been focused on two related Republican operations, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, co-founded by Bush-era White House political director Karl Rove and counselor Ed Gillespie. Former Massachusetts Governor and current presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently received much (unwanted) attention following allegations last week by nonprofit campaign finance watchdog groups that a short-lived entity, W Spann LLC, may have been set up solely as a conduit for laundering an anonymous $1 million donation to a Super PAC operated by his campaign staffers. To avoid further public scrutiny of the campaign, the donor over the weekend revealed himself to be Edward Conard, a former executive with Bain Capital Inc., co-founded by Romney in 1984. W Spann was dissolved last month. (Note: Super PACs, unlike 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups, must disclose donor identities to the FEC, but this requirement does contain legal exceptions – loopholes, if one will.)
Organized labor, meanwhile, has been building its own Super PAC infrastructure. Through the first week of July, the AFL-CIO sent a reported $3,884,170 to the “We Are Wisconsin” Super PAC via six separate monetary disbursements. The ulterior motive is to strengthen the effort to recall nine state senators who supported Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposed curbs, now law, on public-sector employee collective bargaining rights. More than 90 percent of the donations came from out of state. The AFL-CIO, whose unions represent a combined roughly 12 million workers, is the logical leader for organized labor’s counterattack. At a press conference in Silver Spring, Md. hosted by the AFL-CIO Executive Council, the federation’s political director, Michael Podhorzer, revealed that the AFL-CIO is putting together a nationwide fundraising operation seeking donations mainly from persons outside unions. “It’s the legal vehicle to talk to the general public in campaign,” he said. The federation wants to revamp its political machinery in a more issue-focused way. Explicitly pro-union candidates would get the dough. “Given the dire economic times, our money would be better invested in building worker political power…and only supporting those candidates who support workers,” Podhorzer asserted.
Labor bosses are hoping to generate a windfall of public sympathy, and donations, in the context of new on-the-books and proposed legislation in various states restricting collective bargaining rights and/or wage and benefit demands of public service employees. The AFL-CIO’s Trumka for months has seen the Wisconsin case in particular as a useful organizing tool. Back in March, immediately after an illegal three-week occupation by demonstrators of the State Capitol in Madison, he exulted before the progressive group, the Campaign for American’s Future, “We probably should have invited him (Governor Scott Walker) today to receive the Mobilizer of the Year award,” Trumka said, adding: “This is the debate we’ve wanted to have for 20-25 years. Well, guess what? Suddenly, the debate came to us.” The union-driven intimidation campaign failed when the Wisconsin senate, its Democratic contingent having skipped town en masse, passed Walker’s recommended “Act 10,” part of a larger proposal to close a two-year, $3.6 billion budget gap. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in June overturned a lower court injunction preventing the law from taking effect. The Ohio legislature, at the strong urging of Republican Gov. John Kasich, also passed public-sector bargaining curbs as part of a law known as “SB5,” much to the fury of union activists.
There is every reason to expect that organized labor will ramp up its Super PAC fundraising program to a maximum, especially given that avowedly conservative Super PACs in 2010 outspent their liberal counterparts by $35 million to $28 million following the Citizens United ruling. Unions are just beginning to get their fundraising in gear, say knowledgeable observers. “This is a toe in the water, definitely,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan watchdog group, the Center for Responsive Politics. “Corporations saw very little fallout for their election-related activities and unlimited spending in 2010. And I think the gloves will be off in 2012.” Well, if anyone enjoys boxing, bare-knuckles-style, it’s Richard Trumka. For him, that’s what politics is about.