Seal of the Communications Workers of America

Seal of the Communications Workers of America

A couple of follow-up items to yesterday’s post on the SCOTUS Citizens United decision and the split playing out in the labor movement. Two major AFL-CIO unions, the Communication Workers of America (CWA), with the United Auto Workers (UAW) came out hard against Citizens United, joining National Nurses United from the AFL in opposing the decision. From a statement by CWA President Larry Cohen:

It’s true that the court’s decision applies to unions, too. But CWA continues to support a ban on using treasury funds to support or oppose political candidates, for corporations and unions.

CWA, the United Auto Workers and the millions of active and retired workers that we represent know this is a flawed decision. It will allow corporations to dominate the political process, just like they are able to dominate the workplace, undermining laws that are supposed to protect worker bargaining and organizing rights.

Until we can enact the real reforms needed, including public financing laws, CWA and the UAW are calling on Congress to act quickly and hold hearings that document the corrosive impact that these independent expenditure campaigns have on decision-making by public officials. Congress also must look to impose new requirements on corporate independent expenditure campaigns, including shareholder approval provisions and tougher disclosure and accountability measures.

This is a pretty big deal; three of the AFL-CIO’s biggest member unions are very publicly distancing themselves from the federation’s supporting amicus brief on Citizens United.

So, just why did the AFL-CIO come in favor of this decision? Lindsey Beyerstein at Working In These Times dug up some of the obvious numbers, in which the AFL and its affiliated unions spent tens of millions of dollars in federal elections. But Lindsey also uncovers some possibly unforeseen consequences of Citizens United for the labor movement:

The AFL-CIO may look forward to attacking Blue Dogs and Republicans in the midterm elections. However, some analysts worry that the ruling introduces a whole new set of potential enemies. Foreign nationals have historically been prohibited from running ads to influence American elections. But Aaron Mehta and Josh Israel of the Center for Public Integrity argue that Citizens United could create a novel opportunity for corporations owned by foreign governments to influence American elections. On its face, the decision applies to all corporations, irrespective of who owns them.

A steel company owned by the Chinese government might now have the right to flood the airways with issue ads on U.S. trade policy. (Ironically, Citizens United’s grassroots lobbying arm calls itself the American Sovereignty Project.)

Citizens United will probably benefit organized labor in the short term. The mid-term elections are coming up fast, and labor wants to spend big to defend the Democratic majority in Congress. But the decision carries long-term risks that may ultimately outweigh the temporary tactical advantages.

It’s that sentiment that can characterize the divide in the labor movement on this issue. In the end, unions just won’t be able to compete with corporate cash, and that same corporate cash could be directly aimed at the union themselves. I’m going to close this with a quote I missed from John Nichols’ original piece in The Nation, because it sums up the labor movement’s problem well:

The bottom line is that a union leader who supports the Citizens United ruling is like a steer who talks up a steak restaurant because they’re both in the same business.

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.