Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

Senator Confused About “False Equivalency” in Campaign Finance

After surviving a bruising reelection campaign, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) wants to reign in political spending by passing new campaign finance reforms. He’s targeting labor and Democrats’ favorite whipping boy, the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision. Brown said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday that in order to alleviate some of the problems of corporate political spending, corporations should be required to ask shareholders for permission before they spend treasury funds on politics.

Apparently one reporter pressed Brown about the same policy granted unions:

Asked if union members also should be required to approve political expenditures before their unions donate to campaigns, Brown said that unions hold elections for new officers every three years and members can make their views on such matters known through those elections. Brown said he “bristles” at the “false equivalency” between corporate and union political expenditures made by conservatives, contending union donations pale in comparison.

Citizens United allows corporations and unions to spend money from their treasuries—either gained by selling widgets or mandatory dues collection—on “independent expenditures.” Those are defined as political spending used to support or oppose a candidate for office, but that are not coordinated with a campaign. For unions, this means that dues money can be spent on politics, and the union leaders don’t need to ask for permission first.

So Brown is right, in a way: it’s a “false equivalency” to compare corporations and unions. Corporate shareholders voluntarily purchase stock in corporations. They don’t risk losing their job if they refuse to hold stock in a certain company.These shareholders can sell shares at any time if they disagree with what the company is doing. Beyond that, just like unions, corporation’s shareholders periodically hold elections to determine their board of directors.

Union members, the shareholders’ counterparts in this scenario, do not always enter a union voluntarily. There are still 27 states that have forced unionism, including Ohio, the state Brown represents in the U.S. Senate. The only way that those employees won’t be contributing to the union’s political spending is if they invoke their Beck rights and ask for a refund. This can be a long and complicated process.

Brown’s position is predictable. The EFCA-backing senator has done well with labor support in the past, and union SuperPACs spent millions on his campaign this year. The SEIU chipped in $1.27 million and AFL-CIO’s Worker’s Voice pitched in another $678,000.

Categories: AFL-CIOCenter for Union FactsPolitical MoneySEIU