Politics & Policy

Payback Time

A labor of expedience.

You’d think, given their heavy dependence on union money, Democrats would treat labor leaders a little more respectfully at their National Convention every four years. But AFL-CIO president John Sweeney will have only a few minutes to address convention delegates today — squeezed in before prime time speeches by the first openly lesbian member of Congress, an Hispanic congressman from California, and an autoworker who is about to lose his job. Sweeney may not getting much TV exposure, but don’t be deceived. He’ll get his money’s worth from the Dems if Barack Obama is elected president and the Democrats expand their majority in the House and Senate.

#ad#Union members account for only 12 percent of all workers today and less than 8 percent of private sector workers. But union households accounted for 23 percent of voters in 2006; and, as the AFL-CIO proudly notes, they are 25 percent of Democratic convention delegates. More importantly, unions provide the shock troops of the Democratic-party political machine. They man phonebanks, register voters, organize get-out-the-vote efforts, and provide thousands of “volunteers” to work in Democratic candidates’ campaigns. Corporations can’t lawfully pay their employees to work on behalf of candidates they support, but unions can and do. The rules of the game allow unions to place paid political operatives into a candidate’s campaign, so long as they restrict themselves to voter contact with union households.

Of course, no one monitors what happens when highly paid union operatives join a candidate’s staff, so the rules are largely ignored. In effect, the infusion of union “volunteers” allows Democratic campaigns to hire fewer paid staff and amounts to millions of dollars in uncounted campaign contributions. In 2006, the AFL-CIO claimed 205,000 “volunteers” helped secure a huge victory for the Democrats in congressional races, and unions are poised to do even more for Barack Obama come November.

And it isn’t only manpower unions provide. Unions donate money directly to candidates through their political action committees — 96 percent of which has gone to Democrats in the 2008 election cycle so far. But PAC contributions to candidates are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to union political money. Unions collect and spend exponentially more dollars indirectly — and this money, unlike PAC donations, is made up of involuntary contributions from union members. Unions essentially tax their members for politics, taking a portion of union dues to spend on political action with little or no say on the part of members in how that money will be spent. Unions plan to spend more than $350 million in 2008, more than twice what they spent in 2004. One union alone, the two million-member Service Employees International Union, promises to spend $150 million in this year’s election campaign.

In June, the SEIU adopted an amendment to the union’s constitution requiring that each local contribute $6 per member to the national’s political-action committee. If the local fails to meet its quota through voluntary donations, the local will have to give an equivalent amount from its dues’- and agency fee-funded coffers, plus a 50-percent penalty. This amounts to coercion of political donations, which would be illegal if attempted by any other institution. The National Right to Work Committee Legal Defense Committee is urging a criminal investigation into the SEIU’s activities. But don’t expect much to happen if Barack Obama is elected president. In fact, unions have relied on their allies in Congress for years to protect them from campaign finance reforms that would restrict their right to spend dues and agency fees on politics, and now they want even more from the Democratic members they help elect.

Even with coerced political dollars increasing, declining union membership threatens union political clout over the long haul. So unions now want the Democrats they’ve elected to pay back the favor by rewriting labor laws to make it easier to organize by passing the so-called Employee Free Choice Act. The bill, which would be the most dramatic expansion of union power in the last 60 years, would allow unions to forego secret-ballot elections in order to organize employees. But the unions need a Democratic president to ensure the bill becomes law — which is why they’ll work as hard as they can to elect Barack Obama. And even if the Dems in Denver diss John Sweeney by giving him only a few moments on the podium today, he’ll happily forgive the slight in return if a Democratic victory can boost the number of future union members.

— Linda Chavez is author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics.

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