Will Citizens United Ruling Erode Labor’s Political Edge?

Lindsay Beyerstein

The U.S. Supreme Court.

Last week’s Citizens United Supreme Court decision has sparked controversy within the labor movement. Last week, the Court voted 5 – 4 to allow corporations and unions to spend as much as they want on their own ads directly targeting political candidates.

Corporations were already allowed to run so-called issue ads,” but they weren’t allowed to exhort the public to vote a certain way.

Some unions like the new rules, but others fear that a shrinking labor movement can’t compete in a money war with corporate America. Corporate PACs outspent union PACs by 4 to 1 in 2008, according to a new report by Common Cause.

The AFL-CIO filed an amicus brief in support of Citizens United in its case against the Federal Elections Commission. National Nurses United, an AFL-CIO affiliate, filed an amicus brief for the other side.

SEIU didn’t file a brief, but when the decision was handed down, Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger warned that unleashing corporate spending will only serve to distort and ultimately delegitimize the electoral process.”

Josh Israel and Aaron Mehta of the Center for Public Integrity crunched some numbers and their analysis seems to vindicate the naysayers. They calculated that the country’s 10 biggest unions had a combined operating budget of $1.6 billion in 2007 – 2008, of which they spent $103 million to support pro-union candidates through their PACs. By contrast, Fortunes top 10 companies of 2007 posted revenues ranging from $168 billion to more than $351 billion.

John Nichols of the Nation predicts that the imbalance will only get worse as the labor movement shrinks.

Under the old rules, unions and corporations had to raise money through PACs, which could only be funded by individual donations of limited size. PACs can only spend so much per candidate in any given election. After Citizens United, a company can just write a check from its general treasury.

Unions have acheived political power disproportionate to their numbers in part because they have been so effective at raising money from their members. But working people can only contribute so much. Companies are limited only by the size of their profits.

Citizens United may further degrade the status of labor within the Democratic Party. For decades, labor has been the ATM of the Democratic Party. With the money comes some influence.

But if companies have more cash to spend, the Dems will be even more likely to court them instead of their old friends in labor.

Of course, Citizens United won’t allow corporations to give directly to political candidates from their treasuries, and campaigns will still be forbidden from coordinating with corporations. I.e., candidate X can’t call up Microsoft and say, How about some ads for defeating my opponent?” But politicians always know who their friends are.

It may be that Citizens United will ultimately force the labor movement to do what many critics on the left have called for: refocus its limited resources to make change in other ways — like direct action.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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