A new report is out today summarizing the political activities of unions in the 2020 election cycle. It says unions spent $1.8 billion, and that is actually an underestimate.
The report is from the National Institute for Labor Relations Research (NILRR), the research arm of the National Right to Work Committee. It breaks union spending into three categories: spending by union political action committees (PACs), spending by public-sector unions on state and local politics, and spending from union general treasuries. The first of those, PAC expenditures, is often the number reported as total union spending in the media, according to the report. That totaled to only $57 million in 2020, leading one to conclude that unions’ influence is relatively small in elections.
But the other two categories in the NILRR report make up most of unions’ political activities. Public-sector unions spent $287 million in state and local races, and $1.4 billion left union general treasuries for political purposes in 2020.
That $1.4 billion is huge, but the NILRR argues it is actually an underestimate. Unions are required to report expenditures from their general treasuries to the Department of Labor every year. Expenditures are broken down into different categories. The NILRR got the $1.4 billion number by summing the expenditures in the “political activities and lobbying” category. But there’s no cut-and-dry definition of political spending, and plenty of political expenditures show up in other categories.
Two other categories of spending are “representational activities” and “contributions, gifts, and grants.” The NILRR combed through those categories and found many examples of political spending in them. For example, they found that the National Education Association (NEA) gave money to the Strategic Victory Fund, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, the Progressive Caucus Action Fund, and the Progressive State Leaders Committee — all left-wing political groups — and reported it in the “contributions, gifts, and grants” category. The NEA considers that spending to be on “social welfare organizations” and separate from political spending, even though those groups all push a political agenda.
The NILRR report excluded some spending to avoid double-counting and only counted spending from public disclosures in explicitly political categories, so it’s safe to say the $1.8 billion is an underestimate of unions’ actual political spending last year. Unions may be playing a smaller role in most Americans’ lives, but they still play a large role in funding political activities, most of it to the benefit of progressives.