Organized labor spent a record $1.7 billion on politics and lobbying during the 2016 election cycle, with the vast majority of money coming from member dues and supporting Democrats.
The National Institute for Labor Relations Research (NILRR), a nonprofit union watchdog, found that unions spent $1.713 billion on political activities and lobbying. The watchdog group analyzed federal labor filings that disclose how much unions spend on political activities at the federal, state, and local level, as well as Federal Election Commission records collected by OpenSecrets.com. Stan Greer, the researcher behind the study, said 75 percent of the money spent on politics came from union treasuries rather than campaign PACs or other independent union-backed political operations.
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"Big Labor is increasingly turning its focus away from workplace matters and more and more towards buying political influence," Greer said in a statement.
NILRR has tracked union political spending throughout the 21st century, finding that unions have significantly ramped up their spending in the last four years. Organized labor reported spending $2.2 billion on politics and lobbying during the 2008 and 2010 election seasons, and $1.69 billion in 2012 alone. Unions surpassed that figure by $16.4 million during the 2016 campaign, shelling out $1.713 billion, with the vast majority being spent to support Democratic candidates.
Unions' political spending has not always reflected the political beliefs of rank-and-file members. Obama won voters from union households by 18 points in 2012, according to exit poll data. Hillary Clinton beat President Donald Trump among these voters by just 8 points in 2016—the best Republican performance with this cohort since Ronald Reagan's 49-state landslide win in 2016—despite the fact that she was endorsed by every major labor union in the country. Trump received votes from 43 percent of union households, while garnering two endorsements from unions representing Border Patrol agents and police officers.
Mark Mix, the head of the National Right to Work Foundation, said 2016 revealed that many dues-paying workers are not supportive of the partisan activities of labor leaders.
"This election was a case study in the disconnect between union bosses and their members, and the chasm is growing," Mix said.
The $1.7 billion figure is a conservative estimate of how much money unions spend on political activities because contributions to political organizations are left out of the "political activities" disclosures.
The NILRR report highlighted the National Education Association as an example of misleading disclosures. The NEA, the largest teachers union in the country, listed a $312,160 payment to the Democracy Alliance under the "Contributions, Gifts, and Grants" category. The Democracy Alliance is a dark money liberal group that directs tens of millions of dollars from wealthy donors and institutions to a select number of campaigns and activists. Clinton was invited to attend the group's closed-door conference in 2015 ahead of her second presidential bid, but sent campaign chairman John Podesta in her place.
The Service Employees International Union, which spent at least 20 percent of its 2016 budget on political activities in 2016, excluded millions of dollars in political activities from its labor filings. The union paid $19 million to the organizers of the Fight for 15 movement, which pushes lawmakers to double the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and campaigns for ballot measures focusing on state wage policies. Those contributions were filed as "support for organizing," rather than political or lobbying spending.
Union membership rates have plummeted over the last three decades. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 10.6 percent of the American workforce paid union dues or fees in 2016, a 50 percent drop from 1983 when the agency began compiling the data.
NILRR linked the increase in union political spending to membership defections and the spread of right-to-work laws that bar mandatory union membership. Political spending is intended to protect the privileges of union membership and tilt the scale of labor relations in favor of organized labor, according to Greer.
"In the face of their declining membership numbers, union officials are steadily increasing the share of coerced dues money they funnel into politics to protect and expand their government-granted power to force workers into dues-paying union ranks," he said.