Government Union Reports Sharp Decline in Political Spending

Oregon SEIU chapter slashes spending after dues fell by $2 million

Joe Biden speaks at the SEIU Unions for All summit / Getty Images
January 22, 2020

One of the country's top labor unions cut its political spending in union stronghold Oregon after seeing dues drop by $2 million, according to its annual report.

Oregon's Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chapter reported just $1.6 million in political activities and lobbying in its 2019 report, down over $500,000 from 2018. The decline in political spending reflects the union's struggle to maintain its membership after the Supreme Court banned mandatory fees in the 2018 Janus decision. Dues fell by $2 million in the first year after the ruling.

SEIU's waning political influence reflects century-low union membership, undermining big labor's longstanding support for Democratic candidates and left-wing political advocacy groups. SEIU's Oregon chapter has slashed its political spending by more than 60 percent since 2017, when it spent $4.1 million. The steep drop was not limited to Oregon. SEIU, one of the Democratic Party's largest donors, spent less than $45 million nationally on political activities and lobbying in 2018, down from $60 million in 2016.

"The unions are trying to hide the fact that they are losing members, money, and political clout, but the numbers don't lie," said Jason Dudash, Oregon state director for the think tank Freedom Foundation. "Fewer union members means smaller coffers to spend on buying politicians and influencing public policy."

Neither SEIU nor its Oregon chapter returned requests for comment.

Organized labor's political spending has not always reflected its members' voting habits. Hillary Clinton won union voters in 2016 by the narrowest margin of any Democrat since 1984, with nearly half of union households voting Republican. Despite this partisan divide among members, 99 percent of all union political contributions since 2010 have gone to Democratic causes. The National Right to Work Foundation, which successfully argued the Janus case, said the Supreme Court's decision has forced unions to reconsider how they spend workers' money.

"For years government union bosses across the country played politics with workers' money, even though many of the radical policies and candidates they backed were opposed by many of the rank-and-file workers they claimed to represent," spokesman Patrick Semmens said. "Now that their legal power to threaten public employees to pay up or be fired has been eliminated, union officials must refocus on representing the interests of actual workers or risk alienating more workers who are now free to cut off their political support."

Top Democrats and labor leaders have rushed to bolster union membership and political influence in response.

In many Democrat-controlled states, including Oregon, new legislation aims to unionize workers without their knowledge and allow unions to collect workaround fees from nonmembers. At the federal level, House Democrats on the Education and Labor Committee have pushed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a union wishlist bill that outlaws secret ballot elections and gives unions the ability to force objecting employees to pay for representation.

Leading Democratic presidential candidates have also gone to great lengths to woo organized labor. Former vice president Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) all released big labor-backed plans to revive the country's struggling unions, with Sanders aiming to double union membership.