Big Labor Still All-In for Dems

Despite membership defections in 2016, union spending still favors liberals

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka / Getty Images
November 7, 2018

The mass defection of union members to the Trump campaign over the objections of labor leaders does not appear to have shifted campaign behavior in the midterms.

Local, state, and national labor groups continue to pour money into the coffers of Democratic candidates. The Center for Responsive Politics found that 84 percent of the $133 million unions have spent in the 2018 cycle went to benefit Democrats. That total included $47.5 million in contributions to Democrats—nearly five times more than they gave to Republican candidates. The partisan split is down slightly from 2016 when unions gave 88 percent of their $213 million in campaign spending to boost Hillary Clinton and her allies, even as individual members cast decisive votes for Trump in labor strongholds such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.

Trump received endorsements from a pair of law enforcement unions, but virtually every other labor leader in the country endorsed Clinton. Some in the labor movement reevaluated the strict liberal line. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president Rick Bloomingdale concluded that organized labor had "gotten too close to one party" after holding townhalls with members across the state in 2017. Bloomingdale's union subsequently endorsed GOP representative Brian Fitzpatrick in a close re-election campaign.

Labor watchdogs said that Bloomingdale's approach to a more bipartisan politics does not appear to have caught on with the rest of the movement. Maxford Nelsen, a labor policy expert at the Washington-based Freedom Foundation, acknowledged that many had seen a realignment coming after President Trump's election. Union leadership, however, has sent a clear message that it has not changed its behavior, just its tone.

"The same far-left union executives are doubling down on backing the same far-left political candidates, often using member dues to make political contributions," Nelsen said. "It's pretty much business as usual."

While labor spends less than the business community on federal elections, it is far more partisan. The Center for Responsive Politics found that businesses have spent more than $2.3 billion on the midterm campaigns, with 52 percent of the total going to Democrats, winning corporate contributions for the first time since 2010 when Democrats received 51 percent in the midst of a Republican wave. Republicans have enjoyed an advantage in political contributions from the private sector in recent years, but that edge has disappeared since President Trump captured the nomination in 2016. GOP candidates benefited from a 59-41 advantage from businesses in 2012 and 2014 before the parties received a 50-50 share of the $3.4 billion spent on the 2016 elections.

Nelsen said that union leaders have little incentive to shift from the near monopoly they have given Democrats in their spending. Individual members may buck the union line in the ballot box, but many political dissenters continue to willingly pay full dues to their organizations. Michael Lotito, a management-side labor lawyer and co-chair of Littler Mendelson's Workplace Policy Institute, said barring a change in how workers interact with their labor representatives, "the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior."

Watchdogs see only two clear paths to changing the partisan culture: Members can vote out entrenched liberal leaders and replace them with more bipartisan ones or vote with their feet and resign or begin paying partial dues known as agency fees, which are designed to exclude political spending. Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work Foundation (NRTW), said that "lip service" is about all members can expect unless such changes are made.

"You see the same song and dance every few years when union members look up and realize the union officials that claim to represent them are spending their money in opposition to the candidates and causes favored by many workers," Semmens said. "They may occasionally pay lip service to being more representative of the diverse political views of rank-and-file workers, but when push comes to shove union bosses will always back the candidate who is most devoted to protecting and expanding Big Labor's coercive powers."

This shift has already begun happening in the public sector. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that government agencies could no longer require union dues or fee payments as a condition of employment. The Janus decision came after a number of dissident workers represented by NRTW objected to financing political speech. The ruling has allowed government workers to resign their memberships, sparking lay-offs and other cut-backs in several powerful unions. Nelsen said workers who exercise the right to resign will send the strongest message to organizers.

"Changing unions from the inside is next to impossible, so things are unlikely to change unless and until union members begin to express their disapproval in other ways, like resigning their membership, in noteworthy numbers," he said.