Wall Street Journal Compares Union Political Spending to Corporate Donations

The top 1% is scared about people like “the nails ladies” having the vote. The wealthy know that economic inequality is rising and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is enormously unpopular. Turning unions into bogeymen is inevitable.

And so the right wing is excited today about a Wall Street Journal article purporting union spending on politics is far greater than known and is as big a factor as excessive corporate money in politics.

They twist longtime union transparency into something pseudo-controversial in a number of ways; as Laura Clawson puts it, If you count issues advocacy and bratwurst, unions spend more on politics than if you don't.

The Wall Street Journal treats all advocacy for working people at the local, state and federal levels as “political” work. Everything from someone writing policy proposals to create jobs to working in a local community to elect a working families-friendly City Council is viewed as equivalent to corporations anonymously attacking President Obama.

Providing expert input for the formulation of mine safety rules, assisting the civil rights community—be it the 1963 March on Washington or voting protection efforts year-round—everything labor works on is said to be a counter-weight to the Super PACs of Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers and more shadowy figures.

By this definition, the entire budget of the Chamber of Commerce would be considered political, but the Chamber doesn’t report its spending on Department of Labor forms or anywhere else.

The Journal misses the central point that unions are advocacy organizations. The job of a union is to advocate on behalf of working men and women.

Moreover, the Journal ignores the fact that corporations outspend unions by more than 10 to one but are free to hide their spending while unions disclose everything.

There are other technical problems with the piece including double (and triple) counting on dollars not only fully disclosed, but often disclosed more than once by different unions and federations.

But the key upshot of the piece is to try to prove that “labor could be a stronger counterweight than commonly realized to 'Super PACs' that today raise millions from wealthy donors, in many cases to support Republican candidates and causes.”

Yet the article in no way supports the conclusion that unions have financial resources that are commensurate with what wealthy individuals and corporations are deploying in 2012 or any other elections. Anyone tracking TV ad spending will note that there has been no increase in union advertising. Citizens United did enable unions to talk more broadly to more people through grassroots activity, but that does not increase the funds available to the labor movement to do so (as shown in the June Wisconsin gubernatorial recall where the labor-backed candidate was outspent enormously).

Regardless, there is no particular reason to compare union political and issue advocacy activity at the local, state and national level to federal Super PACs. Unions and Super PACs are merely two sectors of a far larger political/advocacy spending world that includes business corporations, lobbying and advocacy groups, trade associations, regular PACs and wealthy individuals.

The Wall Street Journal piece does note that unions, uniquely among organizations politically active or not, disclose their finances fully.

“Comparisons with corporate political spending aren't easy to make. Some corporate political spending, such as donations to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's political wing, doesn't need to be disclosed. What does have to be disclosed can't be found in a single database or two, as is the case with unions.” What would figures show about political and legislative involvement and public advocacy if business corporation, social welfare groups and trade associations had to disclose and categorize all of their spending, as unions do.

That is one of many reasons why the AFL-CIO has called for serious campaign finance reform, including overturning Citizens United.