Unions Double Down to Fund 2014 'Firewall' Around Senate Dems

Big Labor is reportedly building a huge campaign war chest which it says will help “build a firewall” around Senate Democrats who are believed to be vulnerable in the 2014 midterm elections.

According to Paul Bedard at the Washington Examiner, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said last week at a media event sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor that he planned to spend freely during the period leading up to the midterm elections. Trumka stated that he intended to focus on Texas and also “build a firewall” around the Senate seats which, unions fear, could be in danger of falling into the hands of the GOP.

The Center for Public Integrity found that during the first half of 2013, unions contributed $10 million to political committees, corporations, and labor groups, an amount that represents five times the $1.7 million donated during the first half of 2011.

Union contributions accounted for about $1 out of every $6 raised by all super PACs during the first six months of this year, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s review of federal campaign finance filing data.

Corporate super PAC donations, by contrast, remained at approximately $4 million during the first half of years 2011 and 2013.

Super PACs came about primarily as a result of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, a ruling that changed campaign finance law by allowing corporations and unions to use their treasury funds to bankroll political ads supporting the election or defeat of federal candidates.

“Super PACs give unions an important new tool in elections,” said David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which advocates for the deregulation of political spending.

A Wall Street Journal article from July of 2012 reported that Big Labor “spends about four times as much on politics and lobbying as generally thought.” The report points out that previous estimates of union spending has focused mainly on direct contributions to, and spending in support of, federal candidates:

But unions spend far more money on a wider range of political activities, including supporting state and local candidates and deploying what has long been seen as the unions’ most potent political weapon: persuading members to vote as unions want them to.

The Center for Public Integrity reports that the top donor among unions during the first half of 2013 has been the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, which funneled $1.9 million into its super PAC, Working for Working Americans. During the same period, the AFL-CIO super PAC Workers’ Voice invested $1.8 million, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) spent $1.5 million.

According to the Center’s report, only the Democratic Governors Association, the late Bob Perry of Texas, and billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have given more to super PACs.

“We’ll be involved at the state level, county level and district level, playing in some states where we haven’t in the past,” said Trumka. “Obviously, the Senate is important. We will build a firewall around the Senate like we did in the last election to protect progressive candidates. The House is very important too because the only thing standing between us and immigration reform is John Boehner and House Republicans.”

In January of 2012, however, Trumka argued that the Citizens United ruling “tilted the playing field” against those “whose voices are being drowned out by excessive corporate spending.” He wrote:

Since the Citizens United ruling came down, and particularly since the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, we’ve seen growing momentum in support of public policy solutions aimed at curbing excessive corporate influence and restoring greater balance in our political process. From initiatives to bring about greater transparency and disclosure of spending by corporate interests and their wealthy donors, to calls for a constitutional amendment abolishing corporate “personhood,” people from coast to coast have sounded the alarm about the need for reforms to rein in excessive corporate influence in our democracy.

The labor movement wholeheartedly supports restoring corporations to their proper role as commercial institutions. Business corporations are not people – they are man-made creatures of law that exist to generate economic activity and create jobs and income in communities. The notion that they should enjoy the same or greater rights and protections than natural persons is absurd, and it is destructive to our democracy.

Despite the boost in political spending, however, some union leaders believe labor unions are still the underdogs in national politics.

“We’re never going to be able to compete with the Koch brothers or the Sheldon Adelsons of the world,” said Thomas Flynn, political director for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. “We just don’t have the resources.”