The Supreme Court’s recent blockbuster decision on support for political candidates could increase union clout in campaigns, even though most of the arguments about the controversial ruling focus on the leverage it gives corporations.
The ruling in Citizens United v. FEC set aside limits on how much a corporation or union could spend backing or opposing candidates, as well as aspects of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that prohibited advocacy ads 30-60 days before an election.
The decision’s provision allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose candidates could allow them to turn up the heat on centrist Democrats, particularly on card-check proposals, Heritage Foundation expert Hans von Spakovsky told Newsmax.
So far, certain Democratic members of Congress have balked at eliminating the secret ballot for union elections. But von Spakovsky said the ruling allows unions to get a lot more personal in trying to pressure wavering Democrats as they prepare for the November midterm elections.
“Last year, there were a number of unions that were running ads on card-check bill,” von Spakovsky said. “None of those ads said vote for or against a particular legislator.”
Instead, those ads tried selling Americans on the bill’s merits, saying union members need the legislation to protect their rights, in general terms without naming anyone in particular.
“I think they will take those same commercials and they will edit them to go after legislators who they think are on the fence,” von Spakovsky said. “And if there is a vote coming up. . . . they are going to be very critical of those legislators who they think should be supporting it and aren’t.
“There will be far more explicit statements of support or attacks against legislators that weren’t in a lot of the prior ads.”
Democrats’ talk of forcing corporate shareholders to vote on companies’ political positions is hypocritical, von Spakovsky said, because the rhetoric shields unions from the same sort of scrutiny.
Many union members object to how their unions use their dues, but von Spakovsky said Democrats ignore such concerns.
Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, recently told Congress that a distinction exists between how corporate money and union dues are spent. SEIU’s PAC made an estimated $27 million in contributions on behalf of Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008.
“The difference between this [a corporate] contribution and the union member’s voluntary PAC contribution could not be more stark,” Burger said during recent congressional testimony. “Unlike the union member, the stockholder has no interest in funding this political speech. Indeed, the stockholder has no way of even knowing she is funding this political speech.
“The corporation has no obligation to report to its shareholders that it intends to, or has, made this expenditure. Instead, massive amounts of money are collected by corporations for reasons wholly unrelated to the shareholders' political preferences, and then dumped into the political process with no accountability whatsoever.”
National Right to Work Committee spokesman Patrick Semmons disagreed, saying that most union workers cannot opt out of union membership or direct how their dues are spent.
“If the Democrats were concerned about money going into politics, they would give workers a say in how their dues are spent,” Semmons said.
In the 2008 election cycle, unions contributed an estimated $74.5 million in direct campaign contributions, with about $68 million going to Democratic Party-related organizations. This number doesn’t include money given to union leadership political action committees in the most recent federal election.
Unions have conservatives significantly outmatched when it comes to their ability to mobilize in the all-important business of getting out the vote, said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
The nation’s 16 million union members contribute an estimated $8 billion in dues, and much of that money finds its way into campaign activism on behalf of Democratic candidates at all levels, Norquist said. Unlike corporations, unions frequently have their members work in conjunction with Democratic candidates and organize their grassroots.
“Unions are the 800-pound gorilla because they have $8 billion in dues they can spend any given way and give to any third party,” Norquist said.
He likewise sees a decided inequity in the idea of letting unions spend virtually unlimited amounts on elections.
“Unions have already spent a huge amount of money on elections through their PACs, and now they can spend even more,” von Spakovsky said. “And I think they can and will take advantage of that.”
Citizens United President David Bossie, who spearheaded his group’s challenge to McCain-Feingold and other related campaign finance laws, however, doesn’t see any added union threat in the wake of his group’s decision.
“ I have no worries that a union — any union — is going to spend any more money than they already are,” Bossie said. “The unions were the one group that could spend money hand over fist.”
Calls to the AFL-CIO seeking comment were not returned.
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