Unions Bolstering Political Influence with Outside Spending

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BY LAUREN HEPLER – Some scores may never be settled, but one thing is clear: Labor unions are doing their part to help Democratic candidates get elected to federal office this autumn.In the final week before Election Day, several high profile labor unions spent hundreds of thousands — or even upward of a million dollars — in last-minute outside spending on congressional elections across the country, adding to unions’ varied political activity this election cycle, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of federal filings.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees topped other unions in outside spending last week, doling out more than $1 million from Monday to Wednesday alone, mostly on advertisements opposing Republican House candidates.


In addition, the Service Employees International Union spent $384,000 last week, primarily on phone banks and campaign mailings supporting Democratic candidates.

Commonsense Ten, a liberal independent expenditure committee formed earlier this year with significant financial backing from labor unions, spent just shy of $450,000 last week, with a majority of the funds going to campaign materials opposing Ben Lange, a Republican challenger to sophomore Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District.

While these big-spending, union-affiliated groups were among the top outside spenders last week, they’re not the only groups to be major beneficiaries of changing campaign finance laws this election cycle.

Ten months after the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling allowed unlimited sums from corporations, unions and advocacy groups to go toward influencing elections, all involved have seized the opportunity for unprecedented amounts of outside spending. The Center classifies three forms of political activity as outside spending: independent expenditures, electioneering communications and internal communication costs of a political nature.


As of November 1, the SEIU has invested more than $15.7 million in outside spending this election cycle, placing the group at No. 9 among outside spenders at the federal level. Of this money, more than $12 million has gone to supporting Democratic candidates, and more than $3.4 million has been spent opposing Republican candidates. In terms of individual candidates aided by the union, the SEIU spent more than $3 million supporting the Democratic primary opponent of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark), Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, who ultimately lost to Lincoln in June after forcing her into a run-off.

AFSCME has also had a prolific election cycle, pumping more than $12.3 million worth of outside spending into congressional races so far this election cycle, earning the public employee union the No. 10 spot on the list of top outside spenders.

AFSCME has favored negative advertising, spending more than $5.9 million opposing Republican candidates and another $1.8 million opposing Lincoln, again, mostly during the primary.

After the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has generated $63.7 million in outside spending, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has invested $44.8 million so far on outside spending, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce still ranks tops among  non-party organizations in outside spending, having spent more than $34 million through Monday.

The conservative, Karl Rove-backed sister political groups American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies have together spent $36.5 million, edging out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when combined.

Based on interviews with AFSCME and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that factored in projected spending and other politically related cash not reported to the Federal Election Commission, a recent Wall Street Journal article determined that the public employees union had surpassed all other groups in outside spending for the 2010 election cycle.

When AFSCME_Logo-2Color.jpgconsidering only the independent expenditures, electioneering communications and internal communications that are reported to the FEC —  what OpenSecrets.org tracks for all political entities — AFSCME ranks No. 10.

While various special interest groups — as well as business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — have been the subject of inquiry about decreasing disclosure and possible connections to foreign political donors, labor unions are also able to avoid disclosure, too. All fall under the federal tax code governing nonprofit “501(c)” organizations, which do not have to disclose their donors but by law should not have a “primary purpose” of engaging in politics.


While controversy over whether business or labor packs more political punch has permeated the 2010 election cycle, dozens of labor unions have drawn on a variety of other political channels in attempt to sway the midterm elections — and politics, in general.

Through the first half of the year, labor groups spent more than $23.5 million on federal lobbying efforts, with $7.5 million of that total coming from public sector unions and another $5.8 million coming from transportation unions.

lobbying.jpgAnd some unions spent even more on federal lobbying efforts in the third quarter of the year, which lasted from July 1 to September 30.

The AFL-CIO, for example, spent more than $1.2 million in the third quarter alone, bringing this particular union’s total lobbying tab for 2010 up to $3.35 million — an 18 percent jump from the group’s $2.8 million lobbying total through the first three quarters of 2009, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of third-quarter federal lobbying reports, which were filed in late October.

Still, the $23.5 million federal labor unions spent on lobbying through the entire first half of the year is $7 million less than the $30.9 million the U.S. Chamber of Commerce itself spent during the first quarter of 2010 alone, according to federal records.

But lobbying isn’t the only way outside groups can use money to gain influence in Washington.


Labor unions are also notable for their prolific political action committees, which combined have spent more than $49 million this election cycle. The most active group of labor PACs are those run by building trade unions, which have spent more than $12 million this cycle. Of union PAC funding, more than $45.8 million has gone to Democratic candidates and committees, compared to $3.1 million to GOP-aligned candidates and committees.

Overall, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC ranks third among all PACs giving to candidates this election cycle, donating $2.7 million to 98 percent Democratic recipients.

IBEW_Logo_9_99.jpgThe only PACs that have given more to federal candidates this election cycle are technology industry manufacturer Honeywell International, which has given $3.2 million to primarily Democratic recipients, and telecommunications giant AT&T, which has given 51 percent of its $2.8 million to Republican candidates. OpenSecrets.org also compares differences in labor union and business political spending on PAC and individual donations to candidates and parties on the business-labor ideology split page.

In addition, 25 unions rank among the Center’s “Heavy Hitters,” which catalogs the top overall political donors dating to 1989 — the extent of the Center for Responsive Politics campaign finance information. Four unions rank among the top 10 heavy hitters, the highest-ranking of which is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which ranks No. 6 after doling out more than $32.6 million since 1989.

The other top labor-related Heavy Hitters, the National Education Association, the Laborers International Union of North America and the Carpenters and Joiners Union, have all given more than $28 million to federal-level candidates and committees since 1989.

All of these groups have given at least 89 percent of their contributions to Democrats during this time frame.

Center for Responsive Politics researcher Spencer MacColl contributed to this report.