Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

The State of State Affairs

With the spotlight on the presidential race and the union politics surrounding the Democratic National Convention, Big Labor’s influence at the state level has been overlooked as of late. But recent stories bring state politics back to the fore.

When the discussion is about spending $1 billion or $4 billion dollars on all political activity, the numbers are too mind-numbing to appreciate. But on a smaller scale, the effects of union political giving are clearer to see than when the figures are astronomical.

First, we learned about the money flowing from union coffers to the Democratic Governors Association. Now, we see even more direct influence peddling by unions.

In what might be chalked up to a case of bad timing, Illinois Democrats in the state house were under fire after the head of the chamber reported donations from the SEIU at the eleventh hour before a critical state pension vote. The Chicago Sun-Times reports:

One of Illinois’ most influential labor unions denied Monday that nearly $100,000 it contributed to a campaign fund controlled by House Speaker Michael Madigan was part of a “quid pro quo” designed to kill a pension-reform package in his legislative chamber last week.

State campaign records show the Democratic Majority fund reported receiving $97,000 last Friday from SEIU Healthcare Illinois and SEIU Illinois Council, the same day a special legislative session called by Gov. Pat Quinn to fix Illinois’ $83 billion pension crisis ended in failure.

Madigan (D-Chicago) wouldn’t allow a floor vote on Senate-passed legislation that would have reeled in pension benefits for state workers and General Assembly members and only allowed a procedural vote on a slimmed-down measure affecting just lawmakers’ pensions.

And 1,000 miles southwest of Springfield, New Mexico’s state government renewed a controversy over Big Labor’s influence over the state’s top law enforcement official. According to the New Mexican:

Attorney General Gary King, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2014, and the state Republican Party are still at each other’s throats over an investigation of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.


State GOP executive director Mark Knoop in a Monday news release said, “Gary King received over $90,000 in campaign contributions from labor unions and now acts as their ‘puppet-prosecutor’ — launching baseless investigations anytime the union PAC asks him to do so. King has announced his campaign for governor, and these unions are his largest contributor. Yet, he sees no conflict-of-interest in doing the bidding of his top donor against his political opponent.”

Unlike the shockingly-high dollar amounts given at the national level, it is easy to see how giving to a single, powerful political figure can be all the difference in a state level debate.

Unions know this and spend plenty on what many would see as small battles. Although private sector unions are often more interested in federal elections because they are more directly affected by federal labor laws, public sector unions have a lot to gain from engaging in state government. That’s also why unions are dumping millions into state referendum efforts in California and Michigan.

In these legislative battles, unions are most concerned about pushing their agenda to the detriment of the state. In Illinois, Gov. Quinn’s attempt to fix the state’s pension shortfall failed with the help of at least one union-funded candidate. In Michigan, the governor and attorney general are fighting the inclusion of the union-backed ballot initiative, as they argue it would invalidate over 100 laws that have reformed labor laws in the state.

Categories: Center for Union FactsPolitical MoneySEIU