Labor giant Service Employees International Union spent $60 million on politics and lobbying as well as $19 million on the Fight for 15 movement in 2016, and now finds itself laying off headquarters staff.
The union's federal filing to the Department of Labor reveal that it experienced marginal growth in 2016, adding about 15,000 members from 2015. However, that increase did not correlate with financial growth as revenue fell by $17 million, fueling a $10 million budget deficit.
The union, which represents healthcare and public sector workers, spent $61.6 million on political activities and lobbying in 2016, roughly 20 percent of its $314.6 million budget, according to the filing.
However, those figures may underestimate its political spending. The union spent $19 million on activist groups and public relations consultants to assist with the Fight for 15 campaign, which has successfully pushed for dramatic minimum wage increases in New York, California, and Washington, D.C., according to an analysis from the Center for Union Facts.
The majority of that money went to worker organizing committees, local groups that organized and staged protests outside of fast food eateries such as McDonald's, which the SEIU has long targeted for unionization. Payments to those seven committees totaled $14 million and were classified as "support for organizing," rather than "political activities and lobbying."
The SEIU was one of the first unions to endorse Hillary Clinton's presidential bid in 2016. The union's $61.6 million political budget was $13 million higher than what it spent during the 2014 midterms, but a dramatic decrease from the $113 million the union spent during President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. The union spent $453 million in 2012 and ran a $43 million deficit.
SEIU is now undergoing belt tightening to deal with its previous deficits. President Mary Kay Henry announced in December that the union aims to shed 30 percent of its budget in 2017, a move she blamed on Donald Trump's election. After spending $33.7 million on "general overhead" and $30.6 million on "union administration" in 2016, the union began 2017 with an initial 10 percent budget cut, according to the memo.
"We will prioritize the areas necessary to execute and fund our plans to fight back," Henry said. "We must take these necessary actions now to focus our work and our resources on putting our union in the best position to take on the forthcoming attacks, absorb the short-term loses and strengthen ourselves to win big in the future."
Labor watchdogs said that the union's spending reflects its shifting priorities. Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, said that the millions spent on political activities could be better put to use in bargaining efforts that benefit members.
The SEIU spent $142 million on representational activities, according to its filing, while spending $144.9 million on overhead, political activities, and the Fight for 15 movement. The union, according to Berman, has become a political "subsidiary of the Left" using dues payments collected from its members to boost the Democratic Party.
"The SEIU has transformed from a labor union into a subsidiary of the Left, spending millions of dues dollars on left-wing causes unrelated to collective bargaining," Berman said. "Instead of fighting for workplace benefits, the union is going behind their members' backs to bankroll Democrats and liberal advocacy groups."
The International Franchising Association, a trade industry group whose members have been targeted by the Fight for 15 movement, said that political agitation and the expansion of membership ranks among fast food workers does little to benefit dues-paying members.
"Perhaps SEIU should spend more money helping workers it represents and less money attacking corporations and a business model like franchising that actually successfully lifts people out of poverty and gives them a ladder of opportunity to advance in their career," spokesman Matthew Haller said.
The SEIU did not return requests for comment.