Labor unions are increasingly flexing their muscles in the political arena through the use of super PACs — the organizations frequently funded by billionaire businessmen and often derided for unleashing a flood of special interest money into elections.
During the first half of 2013, unions contributed $10 million to the political committees, which are permitted to accept donations of unlimited size from individuals, corporations and labor groups — more than five times the $1.7 million they gave to during the first six months of 2011, the last off-election year.
Union giving accounted for roughly $1 out of every $6 raised by all super PACs during the first half of 2013, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of federal campaign finance filings.
By contrast, corporate super PAC donations held steady, totaling about $4 million during the first six months of both 2011 and 2013.
“Super PACs give unions an important new tool in elections,” said David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which advocates for the deregulation of political spending.
Super PACs arose out of changes to campaign finance law ushered in by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling and a related lower court ruling, SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, in 2010.
The pair of decisions allowed corporations and unions to use treasury funds to bankroll political advertisements that called for the election or defeat of federal candidates — or give to intermediaries that do so, such as super PACs and nonprofits.
Now, labor unions can use super PACs to “speak out to voters who may share union concerns,” Keating added — instead of only being able to communicate with their own members about the candidates they support.
Unions can also still spend millions of dollars more educating and engaging their members outside of super PAC channels.