Seven labor unions have given more money to super PACs than the Koch Brothers.
The National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, has spent more than $22 million on super PACs in the midterm elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The NEA trails only radical environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer in terms of super PAC donations, according to the Huffington Post.
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The NEA’s "dark money" spending is also five times higher than that of liberal bêtes noire, the Koch brothers. The NEA isn’t alone; the AFL-CIO, Carpenters & Joiners Union, AFSCME, Steelworkers, Laborers, and the American Federation of Teachers have all topped the Koch Brothers’ super PAC spending. Nearly all of that money was spent on behalf of Democrats.
Labor unions represented just 11 percent of the nation’s workforce in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from 20 percent in 1980. However, unions accounted for 17 percent of all outside spending, according to Center for Responsive Politics, which draws data from the Federal Election Commission.
Four of the top 15 industry donors of the cycle are affiliated with unions. Those groups—public sector unions, building trade unions, miscellaneous unions, and industrial unions—accounted for $76 million in outside spending alone. Less than 2 percent of that money went to Republicans.
Unions have numerous legal ways of obscuring their political spending from the public view.
The donations documented on Open Secrets only represent a fraction of union spending. Unions do not have to report much of the electioneering that leaders and members do for the benefit of Democrats, according to Patrick Semmens, spokesman at the National Right to Work Committee.
"Open Secrets does a decent job of aggregating what is reported so far, but if history holds that will be a small fraction of all union political spending and misses state-level spending," he said.
Filings with the Department of Labor give a more accurate measure of union influence on elections. Those federal records document how much unions spent on "political activities and lobbying" at the state, local, and federal level. They also cover a broad spectrum of activities related to politics, rather than the narrow FEC requirements pertaining to campaign contributions and outside spending.
"Include disbursements for communications with members (or agency fee paying nonmembers) and their families for registration, get-out-the- vote and voter education campaigns, the expenses of establishing, administering and soliciting contributions to union segregated political funds (or PACs), disbursements to political organizations as defined by the IRS in 26 U.S.C. 527, and other political disbursements," the Labor Department’s disclosure guidelines say.
Much of that spending will not become public until October 2015 when unions file their next disclosures. The DOL disclosures can dramatically increase the spending figures for unions.
The American Federation of Teachers reported $25 million in total "political activities and lobbying" between July 2013 and June, 30 2014, according to its most recent Labor Department disclosures. AFT President Randi Weingarten pledged to spend $20 million on the midterm elections. However, the union has only reported about $10.5 million on politics through October 15, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, suggesting that millions will be spent outside the bounds of the FEC.
The AFT declined to elaborate on how much money has been spent on the state and local level, but did direct the Free Beacon to an article that also fails to elaborate how much money the AFT will spend on the state and local level.
The National Institute for Labor Relations Research calculated that unions spent $1.7 billion during 2012 election cycle and $1.3 billion during the 2010 midterm—spending that dwarfed the numbers one would attain from the FEC.
NILRR’s research included "U.S. Department of Labor union financial disclosure (LM-2) forms, Political Action Committee (PAC) filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), 527 group reports to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and state campaign finance reports." This approach gives union members and the public a more accurate picture of political spending by labor outfits, according to NILRR researcher Stan Greer.
"Union officials are steadily increasing the amount of money they spend on politics to protect and expand their government-granted power to force workers into dues-paying union ranks," Greer said in the study’s release. "The numbers show that Big Labor is turning its focus further from workplace representation and more and more toward electioneering."
That exhaustive methodology may not have the whole story of union influence over elections. The Labor Department’s financial disclosure laws do not apply to every labor union.
"Labor organizations that include or represent only state, county, or municipal government employees are not covered by these laws and, therefore, are not required to file" LM2s, the Department of Labor says.
That could leave out a significant amount of labor activity. While private sector union rates plunged over the last four decades, public sector membership expanded. More than 35 percent of all government employees belonged to unions in 2013, according to the BLS.
Increases in membership have allowed these unions to spend big on the midterms. They gave $38.25 million to outside groups—42 percent of all labor money—in 2014.
Nearly every major union has criticized the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which lifted campaign finance barriers for unions and corporations. Embattled Sen. Mark Udall (D., Colo.) introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn that decision in September. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, sent a letter asking the Senate to pass it.
"Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC four years ago, corporate money has flooded our political system, drowning out the voices of ordinary Americans," the letter says. "The proposed constitutional amendment would allow Congress to turn down the volume on corporate speech and big money donors, so individual citizens could be heard as our nation’s founders intended."
The amendment failed. The Huffington Post revealed in October that the NEA has given $20 million to "dark money" super PACs that emerged from Citizens United. That’s just the "dark money" that’s been reported to the FEC, according to Semmens.
"The largest chunk of union political spending is from general treasury funds and won’t show up until they have to file their LM-2s next year," he said.