Most mainstream news coverage of election campaigns is based on the widely accepted assumption that business and labor are political equals. They are not in the same league. Not even close.
A recently released Democracy Campaign study shows that over the last 12 years business interests have made $12 in campaign contributions for every $1 labor unions have given to candidates for state office in Wisconsin.
The old political orthodoxy that business bankrolls Republicans while unions fund the Democrats is a myth. Corporate interests are indeed the GOP’s major benefactors, but the Democrats have changed teams. They get five times more campaign money from business than labor is giving them.
If you wonder why Jim Doyle agreed to a business tax break – so-called single factor taxation – that even Tommy Thompson wouldn’t support, or if you wonder why Joe Wineke works as a lobbyist for AT&T when he’s not tending to his duties as chair of the state Democratic Party, all you have to do is follow the money.
And it’s not just campaign donations to candidates where the rise of corporate influence within the Democratic Party is plainly visible. The Democrats’ leading “issue advocacy” group in Wisconsin is being sustained by a feeding tube through which major corporate donations flow.
The bottom line is that the labor unions are getting their heads handed to them. Corporate interests have a firm financial grip on both major parties. Labor is losing political clout by the day.
So why is organized labor reticent at best and at times even openly hostile toward campaign finance reform? Since unions have people and corporations have capital, why does organized labor seem content competing on a money playing field . . . even when they are so hopelessly outgunned? Why do they actively and sometimes even openly work to thwart efforts to change that playing field?
The head of the biggest of the big labor players – Wisconsin Education Association Council – recently told the lobbying trade publication Capitol Report Wisconsin that “WEAC has never lobbied to kill campaign finance reform.”
It’s true that WEAC usually takes great care to disclose nothing about its position on campaign reform legislation, registering neither in favor of nor in opposition to reform bills, so as to maintain plausible deniability about their efforts to undermine reform efforts.
But I personally saw a WEAC lawyer appear numerous times before the state Elections Board in opposition to full disclosure and regulation of so-called “issue ads” – campaign advertisements masquerading as issue advocacy that plainly support the election or defeat of a candidate. In other words, WEAC was lobbying to keep a loophole open that is allowing millions of dollars in corporate donations to flow into Wisconsin election campaigns.
If you won’t take my word for it, clear evidence of WEAC’s lobbying against this campaign reform can be found on page one of the official minutes of the state Elections Board’s September 1, 2004 meeting and also on page three of the minutes of the board’s March 10, 2004 meeting. This is rare documentation of WEAC’s activities in opposition to campaign finance reform. Like I said, most times the teachers union has carefully maintained plausible deniability.
Why is WEAC working to keep open a loophole that its presumed nemesis, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, is exploiting to buy elections? An especially good question considering that WEAC has rarely if ever taken advantage of this loophole, preferring instead to fund its campaign ads with regulated PAC funds.
One is tempted to conclude that unions like WEAC and organized labor generally are dumb as shovels. At the risk of giving an undeserved benefit of the doubt, I don’t think stupidity is the answer, or even lack of imagination. I suspect it’s that most of the unions would rather be a queen bee in a dying hive than a drone in a thriving one.
When unions were in their heyday, Democrats controlled government and organized labor controlled the Democrats. Today, if not for the Iraq War, Republicans would be the clear majority party in America. Before public opinion about the war started turning sour, the Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, not to mention most statehouses. Not only has labor’s party been largely out of power, it’s not even labor’s party anymore. Even in a comparatively strong union state like Wisconsin, Democrats are getting five times more campaign money from business than from labor.
So the unions’ money is only enough for them to retain a controlling stake in an ever-shrinking contingent of a minority political coalition. And they lose on issue after issue.
Despite declining membership and waning influence, labor’s aging leadership clings to old practices that put the working class at a profound disadvantage in the modern public arena. Whether it’s done out of stupidity, or lack of imagination, or out of a misguided belief that it’s better to wholly own a few powerless politicians than be one of many stakeholders in a thriving political enterprise, it can’t get much worse for working people.