Paranoia & Fantasy on the Right: The Demise of Union Power in American Politics & the Public Mind

The election season is upon us and along with it comes the standard Republican claims to be up against a powerful Democratic Party machine backed by the awesome clout of the “union bosses” of American labor. We have been told this endlessly by pundits on the reactionary right such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck – those happy to misrepresent and distort the long decline and near-extinction of the American labor movement.


The latest incarnation of this preposterous and paranoid narrative is seen in two recent Wall Street Journal reports, finding that labor organizations spend more “on politics and lobbying [than is] generally thought.” Labor spending on influencing politics has ranged between $600 to $800 billion each year from 2008 through 2011, the Journal tells us, with spending tending to jump significantly during midterm and presidential election years. The paper identified increased union spending (outside financial support for federal electoral candidates) via reports submitted by labor organizations to the Department of Labor, which documents union support for state and local candidates, attempts to persuade union voters to support specific candidates, organizing as related to the 2011 Madison, Wisconsin rallies against Governor Scott Walker, and various polling fees, among other things. These funds originate from union dues, rather than through contributions given by individual union members. The Wall Street Journal reports figures from the Center for Responsive politics estimating that total political spending from unions on campaign contributions and other conventional lobbying was $1.1 billion from 2005 through 2011, with additional spending outlined above adding another $3.3 billion during the same period.


Attention at the Journal has also been devoted to teachers unions, including the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, which the paper reports spent more than $330 million on political campaigns and lobbying in the last five years. Much of this money went to paying election consultants, attempts at mobilizing and registering voters, for political advertising, to galvanizing support for “Obamacare,” and for supporting Democratic candidates. Spending by the two groups increased by between 50 to 100 percent from 2005 through 2011.


Some might view the above details as little more than informational. The pieces extend far beyond “educational” purpose, however, considering the Wall Street Journal’s notorious reputation (particularly its editorial and op-ed pages) for spewing right-wing, and anti-union tirades. This makes the paper little different than most union-baiting pundits on the reactionary right. The Journal reports certainly try to create the image in conservative readers’ minds that labor is an increasingly powerful force to be reckoned with. For example, one of the reports argues that “this kind of spending…has enabled the largest unions to maintain and in some cases increase their clout in Washington and state capitals…The result is that labor could be a stronger counterweight than commonly realized to “super PACs” that today raise millions from wealthy donors, in many cases to support Republican candidates and causes.” Labeling union activists working to influence politics and electoral campaigns as “a shadow army much larger than President Barack Obama’s current re-election staff,” the Journal reminds its readers of the thousands of local union organizations across the country, and highlights the one in four voters come this November election that will hail from union households.


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