Big labor is using its checkbook this election to express its frustrations with gridlock in Washington and President Obama’s inability to pass important labor legislation.
Most of the politically free-spending unions have shifted their money in 2014 away from direct support of Democratic candidates at the federal level and toward state and local races or voter-mobilization efforts, according to the latest political action committee reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The AFL-CIO, for instance, reported the lowest amount of direct contributions to federal candidates in an election in many years, with just $307,362 given to Democratic candidates through September 2014, compared to more than $1 million during the same period in the last midterm election in 2010. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, has ramped up spending this election but likewise shifted from federal donations to so-called “soft” money that can help candidates in the states.
The spending patterns, just a week from Election Day, send a pointed message to big labor’s longtime beneficiaries in Washington.
“It’s safe to say that everybody is unhappy with what’s going on in Washington, including the labor unions. Too many jobs issues have gotten caught up in this polarizing atmosphere,” said Tim Waters, national political director of the United Steelworkers Union.
The financial patterns of union spending this election follow years of frustration expressed by labor leaders, who began the Obama era with high hopes of a revived pro-labor agenda in Washington. But the president, even with a full Democratic-controlled Congress in his first two years, failed to deliver on his 2008 campaign promise to pass “card-check” legislation that would have made it easier for workers to organize into unions.
Then union leaders worked hard to get Obamacare passed, only to see their multiemployer health insurance plans face the possibility of massive rate increases. A still-sluggish economy that has been particularly harsh to unionized trades — and Mr. Obama’s expected plan to expand work visas for immigrants — has only added to the frustration.
“We have a lot of people hurting out there, wages are stagnant, and a lot of it is because not enough has been done on labor projects, and a lot of it seems to be because it’s been caught up in partisanship in Washington,” Mr. Waters said.
The anger boiled over in August when Richard Trumka, the boss of the AFL-CIO, declared that the labor umbrella group would not endorse any Democratic presidential candidate for 2016 — including Hillary Clinton — if that candidate kept the same economic team advising President Obama.
“If you get the same economic team, you’re going to get the same results. The same results aren’t good enough for working people,” he declared at the time.
Mr. Trumka said the spending shift this year reflected labor’s conclusion that it could get much more done at the state level than trying to fight the gridlock in Washington. Five states — Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota — have minimum wage initiatives on the ballot Tuesday, and forecasters say labor is likely to win on every one.
“We are playing in state legislative races at a level we haven’t before,” he told a roundtable of reporters in August. “Partly that’s because we can get things done — like increases in the minimum wage — there that we can’t at the federal level.”
Backing it up
Unions appears to be backing up their rhetoric with their money.
According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, labor groups have spent roughly $15 million less on federal candidates this cycle than in the 2010 midterms, but have funneled nearly $46 million more into outside spending organizations this cycle.
In fact, unions have contributed far more in soft money — over $60 million — in 2014 than in direct federal contributions of $55.5 million.
“When I saw the unions saying that they were going to come out strong in the midterms, I expected to see at least some of that show up in the FEC data, and we’re not seeing that,” said Robert Maguire, a political nonprofit investigator at the Center for Responsive Politics.
“If they are spending big, then they are spending somewhere that isn’t being reported to the FEC,” Mr. Maguire said, noting that reports from the Department of Labor and the IRS detailing outside expenditures will not be released until several months after the election.
According to Mr. Maguire, labor unions were projected to spend roughly $300 million in the midterm elections.
Although that money hasn’t materialized in federal spending records, Mr. Maguire said, “that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
The National Education Association, the top contributor among labor unions in 2014, has thrown the bulk of its weight into localized grass-roots campaigning, promoting education issues and favored candidates in state and gubernatorial elections.
“We have members writing personal handwritten postcards to hundreds of thousands of people in multiple states. We are canvassing and going door to door all across the country. We’ve been focusing on mailing and phoning and pushing the importance of voting and voting early,” said Karen White, political director at NEA.
Union leaders realized that political spending would have to shift in this midterm after major Democratic state losses in 2010 proved more consequential than anticipated. Republicans seized control of some 20 state legislative chambers that year, including full control of both houses of the legislature in 11 states.
“The 2010 midterm election really is a lot of what prompted that midterm strategy in terms of moving our funding to the state and local level,” Ms. White said, adding that state elected conservatives were now being brought to task for cutting billions of dollars in education funding.
“The lesson from 2010, what people heard loud and clear, is that these state races are critical. They don’t get the exposure on network TV, [but] the state House race in the middle of Minnesota can sometimes be just as important as the U.S. Senate race,” Mr. Waters said.
But while disclosure reports detailing outside expenditures are still pending, it looks as if unions are drawing back their traditional financial support for federal Democratic candidates this cycle.
“If that direct spending is going down, and the contributions haven’t skyrocketed, and their money is traditionally going to Democrats, then it stands to reason that they’re not contributing as much to Democrats this cycle,” Mr. Maguire said.
But labor organizations could throw their weight into Democratic elections at the last minute, according to former FEC disclosure specialist Kent Cooper.
“Labor is known for holding back its money until the last October/November period,” Mr. Cooper said, adding that some candidates may even make their own last-minute expenditures knowing that late contributions from labor groups are on the way.