Legal Intern, Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy
The Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which prevented the government from restricting political expenditures by corporations, caused much Sturm und Drang among some politicos who predicted the decision would allow corporations to disproportionately influence the outcomes of elections.
Lost in the resulting firestorm was analysis of labor union's electoral influence through their political activity and spending, which was also uncapped as a result of the Citizens United decision. Labor unions have long been required to disclose their expenditures on federal elections to the FEC; data disclosing union spending on local elections, however, is not required by the FEC. To unearth local union political expenditures, the Wall Street Journal analyzed data from the Labor Department that includes information on unions' participation in local elections. The result is that total labor union spending on politics is four times as high as previously estimated:
The usual measure of unions' clout encompasses chiefly what they spend supporting federal candidates through their political-action committees, which are funded with voluntary contributions, and lobbying Washington, which is a cost borne by the unions' own coffers. These kinds of spending, which unions report to the Federal Election Commission and to Congress, totaled $1.1 billion from 2005 through 2011, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The unions' reports to the Labor Department capture an additional $3.3 billion that unions spent over the same period on political activity.
The costs reported to the Labor Department range from polling fees, to money spent persuading union members to vote a certain way, to bratwursts to feed Wisconsin workers protesting at the state capitol last year. Much of this kind of spending comes not from members' contributions to a PAC but directly from unions' dues-funded coffers. There is no requirement that unions report all of this kind of spending to the Federal Election Commission, or FEC.
The Journal report also discusses the different ways in which corporations and unions spend on the political process:
[C]ompanies use their political money differently than unions do, spending a far larger share of it on lobbying, while not undertaking anything equivalent to unions' drives to persuade members to vote as the leadership dictates.
Corporations and their employees also tend to spread their donations fairly evenly between the two major parties, unlike unions, which overwhelmingly assist Democrats. In 2008, Democrats received 55% of the $2 billion contributed by corporate PACs and company employees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Labor unions were responsible for $75 million in political donations, with 92% going to Democrats.
For perspective, less than 1 percent of Super PAC money that has been spent thus far during the Republican nominating campaign has come from publicly traded companies.