As the annual AFL-CIO convention approaches later this month, amid threats by some of its largest unions to bolt the labor federation for lack of organizing funds, it is worth asking a couple of questions. First, how much does Big Labor spend helping the Democratic Party? Second, is Big Labor getting its money’s worth?
The answer to the second question is easy: It has to be a resounding “No.” After all, Big Labor and the Democrats have lost the last two presidential elections. Also, the Democratic Party failed at the polls in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004 to recapture either the House or the Senate, both of which the party lost in the anti-Clinton revolution of 1994.
Regarding the answer to the first question, nobody knows for sure how much Big Labor spends on the Democratic Party. However, it is a safe bet that during each two-year election cycle, hundreds of millions of dollars slushes into union treasuries from members’ paychecks and out to the Democratic Party, both directly and indirectly. Leo Troy, a labor economist at Rutgers University who testified before Congress a decade ago, estimated then that Big Labor spent about $500 million supporting the Democratic Party in each two-year election cycle.
Big Labor itself has admitted to spending at least $150 million on Democratic candidates for the 2004 election, but that is certainly a low-ball figure. In fact, even before the Democratic National Convention opened in July last year, Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), told The Washington Post that his union alone had put $65 million of union resources into efforts to elect John Kerry and other Democrats. During the same interview, David Broder reported in The Post, Mr. Stern acknowledged that organized labor and the Democratic Party might be better off in the long run if Mr. Kerry lost the election. Imagine how much of his members’ money Mr. Stern would have been spent if the Democrats had nominated Howard Dean, whom Mr. Stern had so enthusiastically endorsed before the Iowa caucuses.
So, now we are told that Mr. Stern’s SEIU and a few other unions — the Teamsters; Unite Here (which represents apparel, textile, restaurant and hotel workers) and the United Food and Commercial Workers — could bolt the AFL-CIO after the July convention if their demands are not met. Because the rebel unions collectively represent about 35 percent of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members, their departure would drastically split the already-weakened union movement, whose membership of the workforce has plunged from 35 percent (when the mutually powerful AFL and the CIO merged in 1955) to less than 8 percent today.
The principal demand of the rebel unions is to increase significantly the amount of money the AFL-CIO spends organizing workers. To those unions that are actively recruiting new members, the rebels want the AFL-CIO to rebate half of the monthly labor dues of 57 cents per member that each union sends to the federation. This would make available an additional $35 million for organizing, including $6 million for the SEIU. The rebels also want the AFL-CIO to use the $25 million it collects annually from its Union Plus credit-card program to fund a nationwide organization campaign against Wal-Mart. In effect, $60 million, or roughly half the AFL-CIO’s annual budget, would be spent on organizing efforts. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who will be re-elected at the convention, much to the distress of Mr. Stern and his allies, has offered to increase the federation’s organizing budget by $10 million to $22.5 million. Mr. Stern says Mr. Sweeney’s proposed increase is too little too late.
Something doesn’t add up here. Mr. Stern and his allies threaten to blow up the AFL-CIO over a mere $37.5 million ($60 million vs. $22.5 million). Compared to the money that Big Labor spends on the Democratic Party, the $37.5 million in dispute is a drop in the bucket. In the 2004 election cycle alone, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), seven labor political action committees (PACs) were among the 15 PACs that raised at least $10 million. Mr. Stern’s SEIU PAC collected $25 million, followed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME ($15 million), the American Federation of Teachers ($14 million), the Teamsters Union ($12 million), the Laborers’ Union ($12 million), the United Auto Workers ($11 million) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers ($10 million). These seven PACs alone raised $100 million.
Labor unions were also very big players among 527 committees, which replaced soft money in the 2004 election. The SEIU 527, according to CRP, raised $48 million. The AFSCME 527 raised $24 million. The 527s for the laborers, teamsters, electrical workers, communications workers, ironworkers, sheet metal workers, the AFL-CIO and a few labor front groups (Voices for Working Families; America Votes; Partnership for America’s Families) collectively raised another $35 million.
All of this money, it must be noted, comes from the paychecks of union members, who, according to exit polls, gave 38 percent of their votes in 2004 to President Bush. By contrast, Big Labor has traditionally spent more than 95 percent of its political money on Democrats.
Is there a shortage of union money for organizing? Not at all. There clearly is more than enough money in labor’s coffers, especially the treasury of the SEIU, to fund organizing campaigns.