The AFL-CIO, Citizens United, Super PACs, & What a Difference a Couple Years Make


Via Investors Business Daily comes news that the AFL-CIO

is mulling the creation of a "super labor PAC," or political action committee, to raise funds to support or oppose candidates in upcoming elections. The thrust of the AP story is that the union coalition is hoping to use the PAC to "boost its political clout" by creating "a year-round political organizing structure."

And why not? As IBD reporter and blogger (and Reason contributor) Sean Higgins notes in his take on recent developments,

"The essential idea is that changes in the law for the first time really allow the labor movement to speak directly to workers, whether they have collective bargaining agreements or not," AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer said in an interview. "Before, most political resources went to our own membership."

What "changes in the law"? The Citizens United decision, which struck down laws regulating independent political messaging by for-profit and non-profit corporations on First Amendment grounds. If you don't remember it as being about a documentary that was censored by the government, you probably remember it as "our Dred Scott" decision, in the words of Keith Olbermann.

What's interesting about this development is that the AFL-CIO was a staunch opponent of the Citizens United decision on the grounds that it didn't give unions (which are corporations just like ExxonMobil, The New York Times, and even Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website!) special rights. That is, Trumka thought the AFL-CIO should be able to "speak directly to workers" but that other types of corporations and groups should not be allowed similar avenues of expression.

Take it away, Higgins:

Unlike some other critics of Citizens United, Trumka saw the advantage in being allowed to talk directly to voters. He just wanted unions, not businesses, to have the sole advantage. As the latter half of his statement [on the ruling] explained:

"And we believe the Court wrongly treated corporate expenditures the same as union expenditures, contrary to the arguments we made in our brief in this case. Unions, unlike businesses, are democratically-controlled, nonprofit membership organizations representing working men and women across the country, and their independent speech should accordingly be given greater protection."

That explains why the AFL-CIO opposed the Disclose Act, the main piece of Democratic legislation meant to counter the Citizens United decision.  Now that the legislation failed in Congress and the whole controversy has died away, the AFL-CIO is quietly working on its own super PAC.

Whole story here. More power to the AFL-CIO. Or, more precisely, more speech power to the AFL-CIO. A super PAC is a group that can spend unlimited amounts of money on candidates and issues as long as it doesn't "coordinate" with campaigns. Stephen Colbert had good fun creating one on Comedy Central, Karl Rove has done it, George Soros and wealthy Dems are in on the action, and now the AFL-CIO will get its turn at the T-ball T.

Here's Reason.tv's 3 Reasons Not to Sweat the Citizens United Decison, which led to my appearance with Harvard Law's Lawrence Lessig on PBS's defunct Bill Moyers show (further below). I was happy to get more than a few emails after the Moyers bit from folks who told me that I had convinced them of my more-speech-is-always-a-good-thing POV.

Original release date: Feb. 3, 2010:

Here's the Moyers show, which aired on February 5, 2010: