AT a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee last month, workers rejected the idea of unionizing. The United Auto Workers promptly filed an appeal with the U.S. government, citing “interference by politicians and outside special interest groups.”
This is amusing on several levels. One is the suggestion that politicians’ First Amendment rights should have somehow been placed on hold in advance of the election. Would the union have groused if the pols had spoken in favor of unionizing? The other is that the UAW helps comprise one of the most powerful special interest groups in American politics — organized labor.
There was much squawking from the left when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Citizens United ruling in 2010. The decision removed the shackles from corporations interested in engaging in political discourse. The hand-wringing ramps up during election years, when liberals are quick to decry the large amounts spent by “outside groups” such as those financed by the Koch brothers.
Yet seldom is heard a discouraging word about the tremendous amount of money spent by labor unions. According to the Wall Street Journal, unions spent $4.4 billion on politics from 2005 to 2011. Koch Industries has donated $18 million since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That places the Kochs at No. 59 on CRP’s list of top donors. Eighteen unions placed higher, combining to spend nearly $621 million during that time frame.
Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel cited these figures last week in pointing out that while the IRS is targeting conservative groups and Democrats work to make miserable the lives of corporate donors to conservative causes, “the unions glide blissfully, unmolestedly along.”
This disparity, she wrote, “has led to a union world that today acts with a level of campaign-finance impunity that no other political giver — conservative outfits, corporate donors, individuals, trade groups — could even fathom.”
Consider her examples: President Obama obliged when the unions requested an exemption to one of Obamacare’s many taxes. He included in his budget more funding for job training, at the unions’ request. When labor sniffed at fast-track trade agreements, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid killed them.
The president of the AFL-CIO recently said organized labor would spend $300 million in an effort to send five Republican governors packing this year. Richard Berman, head of the Center for Union Facts, says that this would be fine if all union members opposed those governors. But that’s not the case. Instead 30 percent to 40 percent of union households will vote for GOP candidates. Yet almost all union donations — taken from dues paid by union members — will be for Democrats.
This has been the case forever. Legislation in Congress would give union workers their own voice. Called the Employee Rights Act, it would (among other things) require unions to get the OK of their members before spending dues money on candidates or political causes. “Under the ERA, union members who support the liberal slant of union political operations will be free to support it, just as they are now,” Berman writes in the nearby op-ed. “But the roughly 40 percent of union households that support Republicans will be given the right to contribute only to candidates and causes with which they agree.”
Unions will go to the mattresses fighting against the ERA. They don’t want anything to impede their considerable sway with Democratic policymakers. But the ERA would hardly cripple organized labor. It would instead simply bring unions to heel, just a bit, and protect workers’ rights.
Oklahoma’s congressional delegation should lead the way in working to get it passed.