News & Politics

Will the Citizens United Ruling Give Unions As Much Political Power As Corporations? Don't Bet On It.

"A union leader who supports the <i>Citizens United</i> ruling is like a steer who talks up a steak restaurant because they're both in the same business."

Some union leaders think that the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United v. FEC -- which essentially takes the limits off campaign spending -- will give them the same flexibility and freedom to influence the process as it does corporations.

These are the same union leaders who imagined that electing Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress would lead to the rapid enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act and meaningful labor-law reform.

The AFL-CIO actually filed a brief in the Citizens United case that urged removal of reasonable restraints on campaign spending.

Indeed, an attorney who prepared the amicus brief for the AFL-CIO recently participated in a conference call talking up the merits of the corporate position, along with representatives of the conservative Heritage Foundation and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

What are the leaders of the labor federation thinking?

They imagine that, with spending limits removed, organized labor will be able to buy enough television time to reward their political friends and punish their political enemies.

It's a sweet fantasy. But the reality is that corporations will be buying so much more television time when it matters -- in the run-up to key elections -- that the voices of working Americans will drowned out with the same regularity that they are on Capitol Hill -- where, it should be noted, overwhelming Democratic majorities have yet to deliver on even the most basic demands of the labor movement.

To think otherwise is to neglect the reality that one corporation -- Goldman Sachs -- spends more annually to pay just its top employees than the combined assets of all the nation's major unions.

University of Wisconsin communications professor Lew Friedland points out that the nation's four largest banks would have to allocate a mere one-tenth of one percent of their assets -- $6 billion -- to counter a campaign in which the whole of the U.S. labor movement spent all of its assets.

The bottom line is that a union leader who supports the Citizens United ruling is like a steer who talks up a steak restaurant because they're both in the same business.

Organized labor ought to be siding clearly and unequivocally with the forces of democracy in the struggle to establish a political process in which all voices can be heard, and in which elections are about ideas and issues rather than fund raising and attacks ads.

A few unions "get it."

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.