With money in politics looking to be a major theme in Democratic Party messaging for the fall election, their friends are finding themselves trying to explain away the fact that over the past quarter-century the largest spenders on federal political candidates are (largely) labor unions, which are overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning. That has led many to get how unions fund politics, especially in the post-Citizens United v. FEC campaign finance world, completely wrong.
The New York Times falls victim to this ignorance today, making two glaring mistakes in its characterization of union spending as somehow different from spending by business magnates on elections. The first flub concerns whether or not union political contributions through members’ unions are opt-in or opt-out:
Union members aren’t coerced into giving political money, either, despite the claims of several commenters. Thanks to a 1988 Supreme Court case, workers have the right not to pay for a union’s political activity, and can demand that their dues be restricted to collective bargaining expenses. The union members who contributed to that $400 million pot in 2012 opted in to the system.
Uh oh. Painting the $400 million as a voluntary contribution is a bit of fiction. That “1988 Supreme Court case” is Communications Workers of America v. Beck, which affirmed the right of non-members of the union who affirmatively object to refrain from paying into unions’ general-treasury political funds. The two key principles are “non-members of the union” who “affirmatively object”—in order to exercise the “Beck rights,” a union member must resign from the union, which sets up other personal liabilities that are beyond this piece. This isn’t exactly “opting in to the system.”
Instead, it’s an “opt out” system where employees seek to get their money back. And the internal rules on getting “out” are not as easy as asking for a refund. Interestingly, a proposed piece of federal legislation, the Employee Rights Act, would require that these expenses be made truly opt-in for private-sector unions, a position supported by over 80 percent of Americans in national polling.
But that wasn’t all the “paper of record” got wrong. The Times writer asserts:
But for the most part, unions, unlike the Koch network, don’t try to disguise their contributions in a maze of interlocking “social welfare” groups. Their contributions on behalf of candidates or issues may be unlimited, thanks to Citizens United, but they are generally clearly marked as coming from one union or another.
That will come as a shock to the Times’s former corporate stable-mates at the Boston Globe, who recently read the American Federation of Teachers and its Boston local, the Boston Teachers Union, the riot act for (presumably legally) laundering $480,000 in “independent expenditure” support to a mayoral candidate through a PAC before the BTU formally endorsed that candidate.
It’s a typical strategy, and one that has gotten unions in trouble with the law. The Service Employees International Union just settled to pay the second-largest campaign finance-related fine in Michigan’s history for improper disclosures relating to its funding of two ballot measure committees. It was alleged that SEIU made the “errors” in part to obscure the fact that it funded the committee.