Government Workers Union Spent $20 Million More on Politics than Representing Members

AFSCME is at the center of a forced union dues case that could be heading to the Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court / Getty Images
June 2, 2017

One of the nation's most influential labor unions spent $20 million more on politics than it did representing the interests of its members in 2016, according to its federal labor filing.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) spent $55.3 million on "political activities and lobbying" in 2016 compared to the $36.4 million in expenditures related to "representational activities," such as contract negotiations and grievance managements for its membership, according to its 2016 federal labor filings. Its political spending accounted for more than 27 percent of all its expenditures for the year.

AFSCME, which represents 1.3 million public sector employees, is one of the most politically active unions in the country. It contributed $14.1 million to political candidates in 2016 and spent an additional $25.2 million on outside spending, putting it among the top 30 spenders in both categories, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Nearly all of that money went to aid Democratic candidates.

The union did not return request for comment.

AFSCME's political spending is now at the center of a case that is likely heading to the Supreme Court, and top union officials are attempting to rally support from liberal activists to defend its ability to collect dues payments from workers.

Naomi Walker, a former Obama administration appointee who now serves as assistant to AFSCME President Lee Saunders, said that Janus v. AFSCME could undermine political operations that assist the Democratic Party. The suit seeks to overturn the 1977 Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that allowed state and local government agencies to require public sector workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment. If the court overturns Abood and allows government workers to opt out of union memberships, dues, and fees, Walker wrote in the pro-union publication In These Times, it could divert funding away from political operations.

"The progressive infrastructure in this country, from think tanks to advocacy organizations—which depends on the resources and engagement of workers and their unions—will crumble," she said. "We need the entire labor and progressive movements to stand with us and fight for us. We may not survive without it—and nor, we fear, will they."

Walker is a veteran labor organizer. She served in a senior position at the nation's largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, after President Obama named her Associate Deputy Secretary of Labor in 2009, where she served "as a liaison between the Department of Labor and the labor movement," according her professional biography.

Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Foundation, which has provided legal assistance in the Janus case, said that the public sector unions are inherently intertwined with politics, adding that he was surprised by the candor of Walker's article.

"There's no question that union bosses have become dependent on government-granted forced dues powers to maintain their political influence and fund their allies, although union officials are rarely so blunt about it," he said. "Union-funded politicians will fight tooth and nail to protect union forced dues powers knowing that they will directly benefit when it comes to support for their next campaign."

The AFSCME suit comes one year after the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 on a similar case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, following the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The tie decision led the court to defer to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which did not have the power to overturn Abood and upheld it.

Unions across the country are preparing in anticipation that President Trump's newly appointed Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, could break the deadlock and deny unions and agencies the ability to mandate union membership. National and local teachers unions, for example, have estimated that they will lose anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of their membership by 2018, according to a report from education news site The 74 Million.

The parties in AFSCME v. Janus have until June 19th to petition the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Published under: Supreme Court , Unions