Unions and Democrats: Labor's Love Lost


Is the lucrative romance between organized labor and the Democratic Party headed for the rocks? Not really, but the Los Angeles Times' Matea Gold and Melanie Mason try to find some tensions

Concluding they need to be more independent of the Democratic Party, many unions are increasingly financing their own efforts instead of writing large checks to candidates and the party.

The shift in tactics is already apparent in this election season: Labor political action committees gave federal Democratic candidates and committees $21 million last year, a drop of 20% from the same period in the 2008 election, according to data provided by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Several major unions, as well as the AFL-CIO itself, now have their own "super PACs," independent political organizations that can raise unlimited funds.

A broader philosophical debate is also underway as union leaders discuss whether they can afford to invest the estimated $400 million overall that organized labor spent on Obama and congressional Democrats four years ago.

The phrasing "last year…from the same period in the 2008 election" is pretty obscure: Is the idea that unions gave $26,250,000 in 2007 but only $21,000,000 in 2011? 

If so, that drop seems both unspectacular and easily explained: In 2007 there was a Republican in the White House and an open presidential race coming up the following year; unions (public sector unions in particular) were flush with cash during a period of soaring public spending and an inflated stock market; and the then-ascendant McCain-Feingold rules had succeeded in subordinating the right of free speech to the purpose of protecting the power of the major parties. In 2011 there was a Democratic incumbent who had already delivered handsomely for his union cronies; we were four years closer to the inevitable extinction of organized labor; and the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United had partially restored the right of the American people to petition the government for redress of grievances. All these factors would tend to depress giving by unions to Democrats. 

Gold and Mason do entertain one part of the above: the post-Citizens United rise of Super PACs. But as always when the L.A. Times covers labor, there's 1) a lot of discussion from the bosses and speculation about what the "rank-and-file" will think, but no discussion from the actual rank-and-file; and 2) no attention paid to the paper's own backyard. 

California pols continue to rake in big union bucks. Unions are typically in first or second place among contributors to Democrats. And not only Democrats: Just the incidental bipartisan hedging that any big political donor must perform means unions are typically among the top-10 contributors to Republicans as well. Spot-checking Maplight's list of donations for the California Assembly, for example, we find public and/or private-sector unions among the top givers to Republicans Katcho Achadjian (San Luis Obispo), Tim Donnelly (Claremont), Nathan Fletcher (San Diego), Kristin Olsen (Modesto) and even GOP Assembly Leader Connie Conway (Visalia). The figures are even more significant if you count giving by "health professionals," "TV & Movie Production/Distribution," and other heavily unionized industries. 

Golden State Democrats get plenty more from unions, of course, and there's a lot of variety in how much an Assembly seat costs. Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), for example, raises more money from unions alone than several of the Republicans raise overall. My own neighborhood's champion in Sacramento, Democrat Mike Feuer, raises more 20 percent of his war chest from labor and labor-captive industries like entertainment. (Feuer, class all the way, isn't completely beholden to the unions because his largest donor group by far, amounting to 25 percent of his funds, is "Lawyers and Lobbyists." Give 'em hell, Mike!) 

That's a pretty amicable divorce, if it can be called a divorce at all. The idea that labor can quit the Democrats is wishful thinking for other reasons. The 2010s have seen Republican governors like Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich trying to dismantle union power and Democratic governors like New York's Andrew Cuomo and California's Jerry Brown trying to escape from union power. Either way, the politicians are the ones with the momentum, and time is not on organized labor's side. In this climate it's the unions, not the Democrats, that have nowhere else to go.