While union membership has been in relative decline in the United States for years, unions and their pension funds are a factor on the American economic and political scene and in the boardroom. A January report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of wage and salary workers who belong to a union at 14.8 million, or 11.8 percent. Of these, 7.6 million employees in the public sector belong to a union and 7.2 million workers in the private sector are unionized. By contrast, in 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available, union membership numbered 17.7 million, or 20.1 percent.
The decline in numbers coincided with a decline in popularity. According to The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki, “In 2009, for the first time ever, support for unions in the Gallup poll dipped below 50 percent. A 2010 Pew Research poll offered even worse numbers, with just 41 percent of respondents saying they had a favorable view of unions, the lowest level of support in the history of that poll.”
Clout on Capitol Hill and in the Boardroom
Even amid declining membership and softening public support, unions flex their political muscle by endorsing candidates for office and through campaign contributions. In 2011, the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor organization, spent 30 percent, or $56.4 million, of its $200 million budget on lobbying—more than 10 times what it spent on union administration, according to documents filed with the Department of Labor. By way of comparison, spending on politics and lobbying by the National Association of Manufacturers was $9 million; the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers, $11 million; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, $40 million.
Corporations are also political spenders. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision ruled that government couldn’t ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections, paving the way for increased contributions. However, unions are quickly establishing themselves as big political spenders. In 2010, a Wall Street Journal article noted that AFSCME was the biggest outside contributor, spending $87.5 million on that year’s elections after tapping into a $16 million emergency account to help strengthen the Democrats’ hold on Congress. The article added that unions have largely been able to stay out of the spotlight on the debate over spending by outside groups because they typically spend their money on other kinds of political activities, such as get-out-the-vote efforts, while advertising buys from Republican-oriented groups have taken most of the heat.
Paul F. Clark, professor and head of the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Penn State University, says the main political contribution unions make isn’t money, but members. “What they do have is people,” he says. “If they can mobilize members to vote for a candidate who will work in their best interest, and to knock on doors, man phone banks and get involved, they can have an impact on elections.”
The State of the Unions:
The AFL-CIO plans to have 400,000 of its members registering voters and getting out the vote this year. Thanks to Citizens United, those volunteers will be able to knock on all doors as they canvass a neighborhood, not just those of fellow union members. The federation has social-media projects, a super PAC and an experiment that will be studied by both friends and foes this year: It is placing full-time political professionals in Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. There will be more states to come, says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and the teams will keep working after Election Day, preparing for the next round of local, state and federal campaigns.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has provided $1.5 million in seed money for the main pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action. And unions representing Teamsters, laborers, firefighters, food and service-industry workers, municipal employees, electricians and teachers have all made six-figure donations (including a combined $920,000, in the case of the Teamsters) to the Democratic Senate or House super PACs.
As economist John Aloysius writes, “Not ironically, the largest proponent of political giving is the AFSCME, a public sector union that puts all its weight behind Democrats, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all spending from pro-Democratic groups.”
So far, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME, American Federation of Teachers and Communications Workers of America have all endorsed President Barack Obama in 2012.
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