Unions, Money, and the Politics of False EquivalenceS

There are two equally valid and not incompatible reactions to have towards the WSJ's big investigative story today on political spending by unions. The first is that there is clearly some effort here by the (not particularly pro-union) WSJ on behalf of the right wing and/ or business interests to insinuate that union spending is a counterbalance to corporate Super PAC spending, so everything is fair. The second is that unions need to spend their money on different shit.

In other words, it's okay to recognize the motivation for this sort of story, set it aside, and still accept the facts it has. The factual part: The WSJ analyzed Labor Department data and determined that, if you broaden the definition of "political activity" to include things like mobilization and voting efforts aimed at union members, work on local political issues and races, and the man hours that union members spend doing virtually anything related to partisan politics, you can say that unions spend several times more on "political activity" than previously estimated, because previous estimates were limited to direct union contributions to political candidates. Fine.

As for the motivation behind tabulating union spending in this broader way, it is not very well concealed:

This kind of spending, which is on the rise, has enabled the largest unions to maintain and in some cases increase their clout in Washington and state capitals, even though unionized workers make up a declining share of the workforce. The result is that labor could be a stronger counterweight than commonly realized to "super PACs" that today raise millions from wealthy donors, in many cases to support Republican candidates and causes.

The hours spent by union employees working on political matters were equivalent in 2010 to a shadow army much larger than President Barack Obama's current re-election staff, data analyzed by the Journal show.

The narrative proposed by this story is very simple: Union spending is actually much huger than previously assumed; that union spending benefits Democrats (with an entire shadow army, even); corporate Super PAC spending benefits Republicans; the two things cancel each other out, so hey, let's stop acting like corporations and the ultrarich funneling money into our allegedly democratic political process via Super PACs is such a problem. It all balances out!

That narrative, of course, is a smokescreen designed to completely skirt the issue at hand (namely, the fact that Super PACs undermine democracy no matter which side they favor, and the fact that campaign finance reform is an absolute necessity, and the fact that, if campaign finance reform ends up being more detrimental to Republicans, well, it's only because Republicans are slightly worse corporate sellout whores than Democrats.) The argument that unions balance out corporate political spending is like the argument that a journalist is fair because he gets equal amounts of hate mail from both sides. It's not true. The journalist may just be a transparent hack. Having a balance of something bad does not obviate the need to change it.

The more useful question in all this is: is it really wise for unions to devote so much of their resources to partisan electoral politics? Is that the best return on investment for union members—and, more broadly, for the working people of America, unionized or not? Doubtful. Of course electoral races are important, and unions can't afford to cede electoral politics to corporate-funded Republicans, because they would immediately proceed to pass a raft of laws designed to hasten unions' demise. But the extent to which unions pour their money and manpower into elections (the SEIU, the AFL-CIO, and the AFSCME have all greatly increased their political spending in the past five years, with questionable results) is the mark of an investment whose returns are diminishing. Time to diversify.

America needs unions. More specifically, American workers need unions. Even more specifically, American workers who currently have no union protection need unions. Unions need to expand. They need to find a way to break into large retail and food chains in order to capture all those workers who are now at the complete mercy of their employers, and by extension Wall Street. Unions should be a basic feature of the workplace, the one thing that can give workers some leverage and make them something other than easily replaceable cogs in the machine, who must silently accept policies and salaries dictated from above. The role of unions is to help workers, by giving them collective power. The role of unions is not to serve as a proxy "shadow army" on behalf of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party serves unions, not vice versa. And though the Democratic Party itself would surely love for unions to spend an ever larger portion of their resources on Democratic politics, those dollars could help actual workers more if they were spent on campaigns to successfully unionize those huge, staunch anti-union workplaces in which millions of American workers languish.

The unions serve the workers. The unions serve more workers by unionizing more places. This also makes unions more relevant, and more politically powerful. This should be the primary focus of union spending. Unions, don't just buy the friendship of politicians. Make those politicians come to you. Don't just hope that a politician will help workers. Help workers yourselves.