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The Demise of Union Power in American Politics & the Public Mind
Paranoia & Fantasy on the Right
by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO and PAUL STREET

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.

What the Journal doesn’t tell its readers is instructive.  Most importantly, the paper creates a false analogy between open and transparent union spending (reported to the Department of Labor) on the one hand, and the non-transparent spending of corporations and wealthy individuals for “Super PACs” on the other – the contributors to the latter not being legally required to identify themselves (or how much they spent) due to the deregulation of campaign finance by the Supreme Court and the Federal Election Commission.  The focus on union spending and power, in light of the massive growth in pro-business Super PACs and their completely opaque nature, appears rather ridiculous.  As the New York Times reports, attempts to make comparisons between “hidden” organized labor spending and (really) hidden pro-business Super PAC spending is absurd at a time when “secrecy shrouding these [latter] groups makes a full accounting of corporate influence on the electoral process impossible.”

Independent of such secret business expenditures, however, one can at least measure how much labor and business interests have spent as related to on the books campaign contributions and spending that benefit political candidates and parties.  This data, available from the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), shows just how silly and propagandistic the focus on labor power is.  In 2008, for example, the CRP estimates that 71.8 percent of all campaign contributions came from traditional political action committees (PACs) and individuals that represented business interests, compared to a miniscule 2.7 percent of all contributions that originated from labor unions and individuals representing labor organizations.  The numbers were similar for 2010, as business interests provided 72.5 percent of all contributions, while labor interests gave just 5.1 percent.

Beyond unions’ inability to compete with corporations and wealthy donors when it comes to funding candidates and lobbying office-holders, another thing the Journal doesn’t tell its readers about is organized labor’s minor impact on the political consciousness of its own dues-paying members.  Forget for a moment that the U.S. union density rate (the percentage of workers enrolled in unions) has fallen from 26.7 percent in 1973 to 13.6 percent in 2009, and to approximately 11.8 percent by 2011.  Also forget that just 6.9 percent of U.S. private sector workers are covered by union contracts as of 2011.  How does the shrunken American labor “movement” perform when it comes to influencing the political attitudes of those who are members?

Not very well, according to mid-2011 data we crunched from the Pew Research Center, which tracks union household membership of Americans surveyed, in addition to their attitudes on many different economic, social, and political issues.  After statistically taking into account (“controlling for” as statisticians say) a variety of possibly confounding factors such as individuals’ partisanship, race, income, age, education, sex, and ideology, we find that membership in a labor union is an extremely infrequent and weak predictor of political attitudes, especially when compared to affiliation with the Tea Party, which is a far more consistent and powerful predictor of attitudes.  As our table clearly demonstrates, being a member of a labor union is rarely correlated with progressive/leftist political attitudes, whereas being a Tea Party supporter is a regular predictor of conservative/reactionary attitudes.

Effects of Tea Party Affiliation

& Union Membership on Political Attitudes

(July 2011, Pew Research Center)

 

Political Attitude

How Tea Party/labor membership predict attitudes

Political Attitude

How Tea Party/labor membership predict attitudes

Stronger gun regulations?

Tea Partier (no)

Labor (yes)

Increase/decrease military spending?

Labor (decrease)

Gay marriage: support/oppose?

TP (oppose)

Increased oil drilling or develop wind, solar, hydro power?

TP (drilling)

Pro-life/Pro-choice?

TP

(pro-life)

Should gov. regulate child obesity?

TP (no)

Poor have it too easy?

TP (yes)

Is the earth getting warmer?

TP (no)

Corporations have too much power?

TP (no);

Labor (yes)

Is withdrawal from Afghanistan occurring too quickly?

TP (yes)

Corporations make too much profit?

TP (no)

Gov. is most always wasteful/inefficient?

TP (yes)

Stricter environmental laws cost too many jobs/hurt economy?

TP (yes)

Racial discrimination is the main reason why many blacks can’t get ahead?

TP (disagree)

Free trade hurts U.S. jobs?

Labor (yes)

Immigrants are a burden b/c they take away jobs/rely on American housing & health care?

TP (yes)

Approve/disapprove Congress

TP (disapprove)

Do newcomers threaten American customs/values?

TP (yes)

Approve/disapprove of the U.N.

TP (disapprove)

Should we be willing to give up privacy to fight terrorism?

TP (yes)

Should gov. regulate business?

TP (no)

Take into account interests of allies in foreign policy?

Labor (yes)

Trust/distrust government?

TP (distrust)

Elected officials don’t care what I think

TP (agree)

Health care reform effects, good or bad?

TP (bad)

Do you follow public affairs closely?

TP (yes)

Favorable/unfavorable image of the Democrats

TP (unfavorable)

Peace through military strength is best approach?

TP (yes);

Labor (no)

Overwhelming military power is best way to conduct foreign policy?

TP (agree)

Positive/negative opinions of Islam

TP (negative)

Tea Party membership is an effective predictor of conservative-reactionary attitudes for an astounding 90 percent of all questions, whereas labor membership predicts liberal attitudes for just 20 percent of questions asked.  In other words, there is little evidence of the power of labor unions to foster any sort of critical “labor consciousness” among their members today, largely due to the beleaguered state of unions, and as seen in their unsuccessful efforts to influence their members’ attitudes and ideology.

The deadly consequences of this absent labor consciousness were evident when Wisconsin’s hard right Tea Party Republican Governor Scott Walker prevailed over the union-led effort to recall him in the wake of his assault on public workers’ collective bargaining rights.  The remarkable amount of right-wing business money that Walker raised across the nation was an obvious factor behind his victory in the recall election last month.  Still, we cannot join the Nation’s Wisconsin-based liberal commentator John Nichols in dismissing Walker’s victory as a triumph of out-of-state money over a comparative cash-poor “people’s power” campaign in Wisconsin.  As the astute left commentator Lance Selfa notes:

 

“This ignores the fact that Walker–and more broadly, conservative politics–has a base in the state….Huge turnouts in the largely white and affluent suburbs that ring Milwaukee provided the bedrock of support for Walker. But Walker also won thousands of downscale rural voters, as well as an astounding 38 percent of union household voters. How could this be? Leaving aside the fact that conservatives make up a solid minority of union households, it’s also true that labor leaders and the Democrats didn’t change the political dynamics in the state.” (Socialist Worker, July 2012, p.14).

 

Yes, more than a third of voters from union households supported arch-reactionary policymakers who explicitly target union power for defeat and rollback.  That’s a pretty blatant indication of “big labor’s” abject failure to build any kind of meaningful movement culture of popular, working class solidarity and action to improve and protect the living standards of ordinary people. We blame that failure on the narrow vision and bureaucratic timidity and selfishness of union “leaders” and the broader and deeper limits of U.S.-style “business unionism” (which has long rejected the tactics and politics of class-wide workers’ solidarity), NOT the supposedly selfish and right wing nature and views of everyday working people.  This is not meant to demonize individual unionists, but merely to point out (as we’ve learned in our own interactions with many labor leaders) that unions today are largely apolitical in terms of their failure to build much of a labor consciousness for their members.  In short, they are responsible for little more than securing collective bargaining benefits.

The limits of today’s unions aside, the opinion, campaign finance, and union membership data cited in this essay ought to render laughable the Wall Street Journal and Fox News’ paranoid fantasies about the breathtaking political clout of “Big Labor” and “union bosses” in the U.S.  The U.S. labor union is a shell of what it once was in terms of membership and political influence.  And although we lack comparable public opinion data from earlier years, it seems reasonable to suspect that labor unions were more powerful in previous decades (dating back to the immediate post World War II era and earlier too), when union members accounted for a far larger share of American workers.

None of this data is meant to suggest that the Tea Party is a juggernaut of political discipline and activism that should be emulated by those on the left.  As we’ve painstakingly documented elsewhere, most of the Tea Party’s power and influence stems from the top down.  The group receives Astroturf corporate financing from billionaire reactionaries of the Koch brother variety, and it benefits from the megaphone of Fox News and other right wing media, rather than spreading its messaged in a decentralized way from the bottom up.  The group is far from a “grassroots rebellion” – as we found in our recent examination of local Tea Party chapters and their weak-to-non-existent political organizing.  In reality, the Tea Party’s power stems from the false consciousness that is produced by the consistent organizing and deep pockets on Wall Street and in corporate America more generally.  Business organizers have succeeded in perverting not only U.S. elections, but also the American mind via the Tea Party phenomenon.  It is this perversion that we will have to defeat if there is to be any hope for achieving a real labor (or leftist vision more generally) in America’s near future.

Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of numerous books, including The Rise of the Tea Party (2011), Crashing the Tea Party (2011), When Media Goes to War (2010), and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2009). He has taught international and American politics at numerous colleges and universities, and can be reached at: adimag2@uic.edu

 

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com