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Is Citizens United Decision Bad for Unions?

American Dollar 2 by thinkpanama

Dolla Dolla Billz Y'all || via thinkpanama on Flickr

John Nichols has an interesting piece over at The Nation about the fallout from last week’s Citizens United decision from the Supreme Court. It’s a pretty brutal take on the thinking that led the AFL-CIO to file an amicus brief supporting unlimited corporate spending. Nichols writes:

Some union leaders think that the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United v. FEC — which essentially takes the limits off campaign spending — will give them the same flexibility and freedom to influence the process as it does corporations.

These are the same union leaders who imagined that electing Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress would lead to the rapid enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act and meaningful labor-law reform.

The AFL-CIO actually filed a brief in the Citizens United case that urged removal of reasonable restraints on campaign spending.

Indeed, an attorney who prepared the amicus brief for the AFL-CIO recently participated in a conference call talking up the merits of the corporate position, along with representatives of the conservative Heritage Foundation and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

What are the leaders of the labor federation thinking?

They imagine that, with spending limits removed, organized labor will be able to buy enough television time to reward their political friends and punish their political enemies.

It’s a sweet fantasy. But the reality is that corporations will be buying so much more television time when it matters — in the run-up to key elections — that the voices of working Americans will drowned out with the same regularity that they are on Capitol Hill — where, it should be noted, overwhelming Democratic majorities have yet to deliver on even the most basic demands of the labor movement.

To think otherwise is to neglect the reality that one corporation — Goldman Sachs — spends more annually to pay just its top employees than the combined assets of all the nation’s major unions.

While Citizens United would give the AFL-CIO and unions large leeway to spend additional funds on ads, Nichols is correct that a dwindling labor movement doesn’t stand a chance to compete with any of the largest corporations in the country and the world. In an ideal world, possibly one with a rejuvenated labor movement bolstered by the Employee Free Choice Act, one can see the AFL-CIO’s ideas. But as it stands, it’s tough to make sense of the federation’s decision.

The AFL-CIO is largely alone. Nichols notes that National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union of nurses and a member of the AFL-CIO, filed an amicus brief opposing the outcome of the Citizens United decision. Nichols spoke with Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of NNU, about the decision:

“Equating what unions and working people could spend on campaigns would be like comparing a toy boat to an aircraft carrier,” she explains. “Corporate influence peddling in politics already distorts and prevents our democracy and political system (from functioning).”

SEIU also opposes the Citizens United decision, though it did not file an amicus brief with its position. After the decision was made public, the union’s Anna Burger released a blistering statement portending doom for working people.

“But with today’s Citizens United decision, the Court has given corporate managers the greenlight to bypass the checks and balances, use unlimited amounts from the general treasury -funds that should be used to increase the value of the business or pay dividends to shareholders–to instead pay for public communications expressly advocating the election or defeat of the candidates of their choice.

“Our democratic process was meant to protect the people not profit margins and today’s decision makes the need for an effective system for public funding, effective disclosure regulations, and other reforms of federal elections all the more pressing.

There’s some talk of allowing shareholders of corporations to exempt their shares from political use, similar to how union members can opt out of having their dues fund the union’s political activity as a fix to Citizens United. That would hardly level the playing field, as those activist shareholders will be in the minority. Regardless, it’s clear that corporations have the potential to spend much, much more than any union in this brave new world of campaign finance. Note: the AFL was contacted for comment but had not responded by time of publication. I’ll update when I hear back.

CommunityWork In Progress

Is Citizens United Decision Bad for Unions?

American Dollar 2 by thinkpanama

Dolla Dolla Billz Y'all || via thinkpanama on Flickr

John Nichols has an interesting piece over at The Nation about the fallout from last week’s Citizens United decision from the Supreme Court.  It’s a pretty brutal take on the thinking that led the AFL-CIO to file an amicus brief supporting unlimited corporate spending.  Nichols writes:

Some union leaders think that the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United v. FEC — which essentially takes the limits off campaign spending — will give them the same flexibility and freedom to influence the process as it does corporations.

These are the same union leaders who imagined that electing Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress would lead to the rapid enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act and meaningful labor-law reform.

The AFL-CIO actually filed a brief in the Citizens United case that urged removal of reasonable restraints on campaign spending.

Indeed, an attorney who prepared the amicus brief for the AFL-CIO recently participated in a conference call talking up the merits of the corporate position, along with representatives of the conservative Heritage Foundation and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

What are the leaders of the labor federation thinking?

They imagine that, with spending limits removed, organized labor will be able to buy enough television time to reward their political friends and punish their political enemies.

It’s a sweet fantasy. But the reality is that corporations will be buying so much more television time when it matters — in the run-up to key elections — that the voices of working Americans will drowned out with the same regularity that they are on Capitol Hill — where, it should be noted, overwhelming Democratic majorities have yet to deliver on even the most basic demands of the labor movement.

To think otherwise is to neglect the reality that one corporation — Goldman Sachs — spends more annually to pay just its top employees than the combined assets of all the nation’s major unions.

While Citizens United would give the AFL-CIO and unions large leeway to spend additional funds on ads, Nichols is correct that a dwindling labor movement doesn’t stand a chance to compete with any of the largest corporations in the country and the world.  In an ideal world, possibly one with a rejuvenated labor movement bolstered by the Employee Free Choice Act, one can see the AFL-CIO’s ideas.  But as it stands, it’s tough to make sense of the federation’s decision.

The AFL-CIO is largely alone.  Nichols notes that National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union of nurses and a member of the AFL-CIO, filed an amicus brief opposing the outcome of the Citizens United decision.  Nichols spoke with Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of NNU, about the decision:

“Equating what unions and working people could spend on campaigns would be like comparing a toy boat to an aircraft carrier,” she explains. “Corporate influence peddling in politics already distorts and prevents our democracy and political system (from functioning).”

SEIU also opposes the Citizens United decision, though it did not file an amicus brief with its position.  After the decision was made public, the union’s Anna Burger released a blistering statement portending doom for working people.

“But with today’s Citizens United decision, the Court has given corporate managers the greenlight to bypass the checks and balances, use unlimited amounts from the general treasury -funds that should be used to increase the value of the business or pay dividends to shareholders–to instead pay for public communications expressly advocating the election or defeat of the candidates of their choice.

“Our democratic process was meant to protect the people not profit margins and today’s decision makes the need for an effective system for public funding, effective disclosure regulations, and other reforms of federal elections all the more pressing.

There’s some talk of allowing shareholders of corporations to exempt their shares from political use, similar to how union members can opt out of having their dues fund the union’s political activity as a fix to Citizens United.  That would hardly level the playing field, as those activist shareholders will be in the minority.  Regardless, it’s clear that corporations have the potential to spend much, much more than any union in this brave new world of campaign finance.  Note: the AFL was contacted for comment but had not responded by time of publication.  I’ll update when I hear back.

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Michael Whitney

Michael Whitney

My name is Michael Whitney. I'm a progressive online organizer working with FDL Action. Rush Limbaugh called me "clueless" once. He went into rehab two days later.