Commentary: 40% of Union Members Vote Republican. So Why Does 99% of Union Advocacy Money Go to Liberal Groups?
Imagine a part of your paycheck being taken and spent on a political agenda you oppose. In union America, it’s par for the course.
Since 2010, labor unions have sent more than $1.1 billion in member dues to liberal advocacy groups aligned with the Democratic Party. Union officials spent that money without prior member approval, even though roughly 40% of union household members vote Republican in any given election cycle. About 1% of that amount, less than $10 million, went to Republican or bipartisan groups. Under current labor law, union officials are not required to obtain affirmative consent before spending dues money on political causes.
My organization, the Center for Union Facts, combed through seven years of union financial disclosures to the Labor Department—the most comprehensive look at union advocacy spending ever done—and uncovered a troubling trail. Since 2010, the Democratic Governors Association received more than $14 million. America Votes, the self-proclaimed “coordination hub of the progressive community,” collected nearly $13 million. Even Planned Parenthood, whose mission is far removed from collective bargaining, received over $800,000 in union member dues.
Anti-Trump advocacy groups are among Big Labor’s top beneficiaries. The Center for American Progress, Economic Policy Institute, and National Employment Law Project—nonprofits opposed to the Republican agenda—received more than $18 million in dues combined. All of them were engaged in publicly undermining the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
But the money trail is hardly noteworthy in and of itself. For years, organized labor has positioned itself as the ATM of the Democratic Party, solidifying the echo chamber for liberal initiatives.
The story here is the legal loophole allowing union officials to spend dues dollars without their members’ opt-in permission. Such consent is required for campaign contributions and super PAC spending, but not political advocacy. Union leadership exploits the loophole by steering donations to non-labor organizations that appear apolitical on the surface but reek of partisanship beneath. These groups form the opposition to President Donald Trump and conservative reforms under the guise of “representational activities.”
But it leaves millions of American employees unrepresented in the workplace. The substantial minority of union members who vote Republican are left financing the likes of Al Sharpton. While they can ask for a refund after the fact, securing one is an arduous path paved with union intimidation. Because of the Supreme Court’s 1988 Beck ruling, employees are entitled to receive a refund of any portion of union dues that is spent on purposes other than collective bargaining. But requesting one is easier said than done, as union officials are known to bully conscientious union objectors who threaten their advocacy agenda. This is no simple Amazon refund.
Why is this the case? Because federal labor laws have not been substantially updated since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.
Seventy years ago, a Republican Congress overcame a veto from the President Harry Truman to impose checks on Wild West union organizing and aggressive labor organizers. Prior to Taft-Hartley’s passage, unions could file unfair labor practice complaints against employers, but businesses were denied the same right. Strikes grew chaotic. One walk-out in Maine was so violent that the employer—a shoe factory—called in National Guard units to keep the peace. In other instances, factories were set ablaze and lives were lost.
Today, congressional Republicans have a once in a generation opportunity to pass labor reform yet again. It’s called the Employee Rights Act (ERA), which is currently cosponsored by more than 170 members of the House and Senate. Among other pro-employee provisions, the ERA would require union officials to obtain opt-in permission before spending their member dues on political advocacy of any kind.
Not surprisingly, more than 80% of union household members support the ERA’s paycheck protection provisions. Liberal or conservative, we should all agree on one thing: Americans should have a say in where their money goes. Congress should guarantee it.
Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts.