The Role of Union Money in the 2019 Elections

Labor unions contributing more than $100,000. Source: Virginia Public Access Project

by James A. Bacon

Organized labor may not be the biggest source of campaign contributions in Virginia, but it is one of the most consistently reliable supporters of Democratic candidates. Virginia Public Access Project data shows that labor unions have contributed $4.8 million in the current electoral cycle, favoring Democrats over Republicans by a 200-to-1 margin (not accounting for “other” contributions, which could make the ratio even more lopsided).

What does organized labor think it’s getting from Democratic Party candidates? Primarily, the unions want to elect Democrats who will support Project Labor Agreements requiring unionized labor in big state construction contracts. Repeal of Right to Work might be a distant secondary factor, but I don’t discern any evidence from these numbers that Big Labor has ginned up a campaign to reverse the long-standing law…. not yet.

Other than the AFL-CIO and the Firefighters International, industrial labor unions and public-sector labor unions do not rank among the big contributors (more than $100,000) in this electoral cycle. The overwhelming majority of labor contributions come from the construction trades. Construction unions are interested in one thing: using government to give unionized companies a competitive advantage over non-union companies in bidding for big infrastructure contracts. The goal is to get state/local governments and independent authorities to sign Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) to restrict bidding to unionized companies. (It would be interesting to research the contributions of construction companies to see if unionized companies donate mainly to Democrats and non-union companies mainly to Republicans).

For decades, repeal of Right to Work was never on the table in Virginia, and labor unions didn’t waste much effort on trying to reverse the law, which protects the rights of employees not to join a union. Suddenly, though, as Democrats seem poised to take control of the General Assembly, Right to Work seems to be in play among the younger generation of leftist legislators.

If the thought of overturning Right to Work really was motivating union contributions, however, I’d expect to see a broader cross-section of labor organizations contributing serious money to Democratic candidates. Compelling all wage-earning employees to join a union increases a union’s take from dues and assessments, and bigger union dues translates directly into bigger campaign contributions to Democrats, so the Dem/union alliance is a natural one. But the unions appear to be treating the 2019 election as business-as-usual, and their contributions have shown no spike upwards from previous years. Should the Dems win the General Assembly in November, the political calculus likely will change.

Note: Unions make huge contributions to entities that VPAP classifies as “other,” as in neither Democrat nor Republican. “Other” usually indicates that the union is contributing money to a Political Action Committee or a Political Education Fund. VPAP does not track how those funds are spent, but it is safe assumption that union PACs and education funds favor Democrats as consistently as their direct campaign contributions do.

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12 responses to “The Role of Union Money in the 2019 Elections

  1. Organized labor wants the same thing with its contributions that businesses, such as Dominion, want: legislators sympathetic to their issues and access to legislators. At least, labor is honest and gives to one party, rather than playing both sides of the street and giving to both, as many businesses do.

    Again, here is the scare phrase, “compelling all wage-earning workers to join a union.” If right-to-work is repealed, workers will be required to support a union only if the company or plant is unionized. And the repeal of right-to-work does not guarantee that a company will be unionized. The proof: Nucor Steel, one of the biggest steel manufacturers in the country, operates in both right-to-work states and non right-to-work states and none of its facilities are unionized. How does the company manage that? It treats its employees right. See: Simple, if the employees are happy and feel valued and properly compensated, there is no need to unionize.

    • Labor unions play a vital role in American society, giving workers a voice and clout through collective bargaining. Not all employers are enlightened. Some have atrocious records in labor relations. As Morgan Massey, who ran Massey Coal Co. for years (and whose biography I am writing), “the coal industry got the labor union it deserved” with the United Mine Workers of America. I doubt anyone who posts or comments on this blog would disagree that unions are necessary.

      But unions have what economists call an “agency” problem — the interests of the people who run the union are not the same as the interests of the members. (This problem parallels a similar disjuncture between the interest of corporate management and shareholders.) The institutional interest of unions is to increase membership and increase union dues. Needless to say, that’s not necessarily the interest of union members, especially if the dues are used for political purposes that union members object to.

    • But the point still remains, in an non-right-to-work state, a worker can be forced to join a union/pay union dues equivalent if a plant or business is organized. Based on the decisions of others, a person can be compelled to support an organization that he/she does not support. Why is that right?

      If a union delivers such great value to workers, workers will join. Why coerce them?

  2. Dick, are you really saying that it is dishonest for a business entity to support legislators or candidates in both parties? If as you say the unions are issue oriented, then they should be looking for access and an audience on both sides. Giving to one party only indicates that the party matters most, not the issues. Having spent most of my lobbying time with business entities, my advice was always reach out in all directions, have support in both parties. With the shipyard, the legislators who represented the area and the workforce were not all one party. We gave to them all.

    I do expect a push to repeal Right to Work in 2020. It has not been a huge issue with the Virginia unions, but it has not been a huge issue because it was a long shot. Now it is in reach. Plenty of other issues matter, and every now and then the unions and the business lobbyists are on the same side of some of them. They certainly have common interest in controlling health care costs, for example.

    Back in the day I had members of the GOP caucus endorsed by AFL-CIO entities, sometimes (not often) by the big COPE. There was an interest by the leadership at the time (Danny LeBlanc) in not being taken for granted by the Democrats. When LeBlanc was under fire after a proposed cabinet appointment, the shipyard shocked many by coming to his defense. Today’s super-heated polarization is fairly recent. This business of pure party loyalty is not a good development.

    • Steve, I don’t think it is dishonest for entities (business, labor, non-profit, individuals) to donate to individual legislators from both parties. I agree that pure party loyalty is not a good development.

      What I was talking about is the situation in which an entity donates to both party organizations. Example: According to VPAP, Dominion has given $60,000 to the Senate Democratic Caucus, $55,000 to the Senate Republican Caucus, $30,000 to the House Republican Caucus, and $14,000 to the House Democratic Caucus. This is not making donations in support of a particular policy position or issue. It is pure opportunism, hedging one’s bets, covering all the bases, whatever you want to call it. It may be smart politics, but it seems sort of slimy.

  3. I’m not sure the GOP – in general and in Virginia has ever been a supporter of employees organizing into associations/organizations that bargain with employers. In Virginia, more than once, the VEA (for instance) has been attacked as a de-facto Teachers “union”during elections as if the word “union” is some kind of evil.

    The GOP, very successfully, drew blue collar workers away from the Dems – and the unions.

    The tide might be starting to run the other way – in part – because workers are not seeing wage increases even though the economy is said to be going “great guns”

    We actually have unions all through Virginia – most Fire Departments and Rescue are unionized but they fly below the radar to not rattle the GOP cage.

  4. Drumbeat! Trumpets! Call to arms!

    More scary stuff about the leftie takeover (I cannot wait!), but Jim, a little perspective. I went back to the VPAP site and there I found that organized labor was towards the bottom of donors; Tops were political groups ($50 million); Real estate and construction ($16.5 million) and health care, $10 million. I am certain that a lot of the Big Dogs are Republicans.
    While I appreciate your understanding that labor gives to Dems because they are more helpful, I do find that kinda obvious.
    I also note that in a another comment on another blog you note that E. Morgan Massey says industries get the kinds of unions they deserve, hence coal operators have been stuck with the UMWA. I went through this in my book on coal and Massey Energy in 2012. I spent hours with Morgan, whom I greatly respect. But dang it Jim, Massey broke the UMWA back in the 1980s because idiot Richard Trumka let him. Did he tell you about the “Massey Doctrine?”

    • Oh, yeah, I’ve got a short chapter on the Massey Doctrine. I’ve got loads of great material and I’m really enjoying this writing project. In my chapter on Massey Energy (after Morgan retired), I’ll be using your book as a source. I was hoping to get some lengthy face time with Don Blankenship, but who knows if that will be possible now that he’s running for president!!

      Just curious, in what way do you think Trumka was an idiot back during the selective strike of A.T. Massey Coal?

  5. Because Trumpka gave in to a Massey idea not to have omnibus contracts for all of its mines — rather individual ones. Classic divide and conquer. In 2010, Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, woefully managed, blew up, killing 29 miners. UBB was not union. They were, then weren’t and finally the UMWA gave up trying to organize it. Had the union been involved, there would have been more checks and balances.

  6. “While I appreciate your understanding that labor gives to Dems because they are more helpful, I do find that kinda obvious.”

    Helpful to organized labor and not necessary the membership. Despite the fact that there are many fewer white male union members now than there were 20-30 years ago, Clinton only beat Trump by 8% among union voters according to the AFL-CIO in November 2016. So how much union support was given to Trump? Why did so many of the rank and file abandon their leaders?

    Labor unions care about labor unions and, sometimes, about workers.

    What does the rank and file feel about taking away employer-provided health insurance or allowing virtually unlimited unauthorized workers over the border where they drive down wages and increase local taxes? Where does union leadership stand?

  7. Jim, try to see bobby ray inman. Retired admiral, directed NSA and was no. 2 at cia. Was massey’s last chairman and helped get blankenship out of the pucture.

  8. Dick, didn’t want to insert another reply on top of the other writers (hate that when it is done to me.) But back to your concerns if a business entity gives to both political parties or both legislative caucuses. Again, the main goal is often attendance at events where they find target-rich rooms for schmoozing and some light arm twisting. And my advice to employers/clients was to be fairly even on both sides. Attending only one side’s events was a sure fire way to get the wrong kind of attention.

    No question, big dollars can be a sign of big greed, but I actually feel that these people running for office are taking on largely thankless tasks, and those of us who care about the process should be writing some checks and participating in the process in other ways. If you look up my former employer/client, the shipyard, you’ll see a pattern in the gubernatorial elections for example of giving the same to both sides usually. It started before me. Not a tiny check, but not a huge one. Hedging bets? Sure. Slimy? I don’t agree. As one of the state’s premier entities, they viewed participating as a civic duty.

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