Labor Unions' Fight for the 99% Goes Way Beyond Raising Campaign Dollars
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This election cycle, of course, we're facing action by lots of groups called super PACs, that don't have to disclose their donors. Timothy Noah at The New Republic recently examined who was actually behind the biggest super PACs and found—surprise surprise—just a few billionaires at the heart of all that money.
“CNN’s Charles Riley calculates that for 2011–2012 the 100 biggest individual donors to super PACs make up only 3.7 percent of the contributors but supply more than 80 percent of the cash,” Noah noted.
Even as the AFL-CIO launches its own super PAC, Worker's Voice, the difference is obvious. Eliza Newlin Carney at Roll Call reported that the AFL-CIO's PAC has raised some $5.4 million and will report $4.1 million cash on hand when it has to file first-quarter disclosure reports. Compare that to the $76.8 million raised by Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS—which got 87 percent of its cash from just 24 donations from ultra-rich donors who gave over $1 million apiece. American Crossroads, the super PAC arm of Crossroads GPS, has already spent $29 million since its founding in 2010.
Oh yes—and the AFL-CIO represents some 12 million or so working people, from teachers to postal workers, firefighters to steelworkers, nurses to screenwriters.
“As imperfect as they are, labor unions are organized on the basis of one person one vote, not one dollar one vote. Their purpose is, they exist to be democratic institutions that give voice to ordinary people,” Silvers noted. “If you think that the government ought to be about one person one vote, labor unions shouldn't bother you, because they run on that basis, and they collect money from their members on that basis. Everybody pays the same.”
The super PAC, of course, allows the labor federation to reach out beyond its membership and accept donations from workers who may not have union representation. That won't make up the difference in money, but it does help to explain why the AFL-CIO, which issued a strong statement against Citizens United this spring and calling for public financing of campaigns, as well as “common-sense restrictions” on campaign spending by the ultra-rich and corporations--”including their contributions to organizations engaged in electoral activity,” got into the super PAC business.
“The super PAC is a manifestation of President Trumka's view that the AFL has to be in the fight for all working Americans,” Silvers said. And Perlman pointed out, “If I play a sport and they make a rule change I don't like, if I want to win I still have to play by the rules. When [football] went from leather helmets to regular helmets and changed how you could hit, nobody wore leather helmets anymore because you'd get killed.”
Even with the super PAC, organized labor's monetary contribution to the election is going to look small compared to big business. AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer told Roll Call, “We were outspent 20-to-1 last time. We will probably be outspent 20-to-1 this time. But we are going to out-organize them by more than 20-to-1.”
Noah pointed out that organizing is basically the only thing super PACs cannot do, because that would require coordination with actual candidates and campaigns that they're legally forbidden to do. But that's not the style of these rich billionaires in any case. “It’s too social, and you can’t be much of a crank if you have to listen to other people,” Noah wrote.
Not so, of course, for labor. The labor movement is built upon grassroots organizing. Organizing workers takes conversations, face-to-face, personal connections, and solidarity. That's why the most important contribution from labor even in today's big-money era is going to be, as Perlman said, “actually talking to people, explaining the issues in a real way, not in a 30-second ad way.”