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Unions Can’t Compete With Corporate Campaign Cash

The Beat, 1/24/10

By John Nichols
The Beat
January 24, 2010

Some union leaders think that the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United v. FEC -- which essentially takes the limits off campaign spending -- will give them the same flexibility and freedom to influence the process as it does corporations.

These are the same union leaders who imagined that electing Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress would lead to the rapid enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act and meaningful labor-law reform.

The AFL-CIO actually filed a brief in the Citizens United case that urged removal of reasonable restraints on campaign spending.

Indeed, an attorney who prepared the amicus brief for the AFL-CIO recently participated in a conference call talking up the merits of the corporate position, along with representatives of the conservative Heritage Foundation and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

What are the leaders of the labor federation thinking?

They imagine that, with spending limits removed, organized labor will be able to buy enough television time to reward their political friends and punish their political enemies.

It's a sweet fantasy. But the reality is that corporations will be buying so much more television time when it matters -- in the run-up to key elections -- that the voices of working Americans will drowned out with the same regularity that they are on Capitol Hill -- where, it should be noted, overwhelming Democratic majorities have yet to deliver on even the most basic demands of the labor movement.

To think otherwise is to neglect the reality that one corporation -- Goldman Sachs -- spends more annually to pay just its top employees than the combined assets of all the nation's major unions.

University of Wisconsin communications professor Lew Friedland points out that the nation's four largest banks would have to allocate a mere one-tenth of one percent of their assets -- $6 billion -- to counter a campaign in which the whole of the U.S. labor movement spent all of its assets.

The bottom line is that a union leader who supports the Citizens United ruling is like a steer who talks up a steak restaurant because they're both in the same business.

Organized labor ought to be siding clearly and unequivocally with the forces of democracy in the struggle to establish a political process in which all voices can be heard, and in which elections are about ideas and issues rather than fund raising and attacks ads.

A few unions "get it."

The California Nurses Association and National Nurses United, the nation's largest nurses union, have accurately identified the Citizens United decision as a "disastrous ruling for American workers and American democracy."

"The healthcare debate of the last year has provided a sobering reminder of the already pervasive influence of giant pharmaceutical and insurance corporations. The last thing our democracy and political system needs is ever more spending and political sway by the wealthiest interests in this country," says Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, the 150,000-member labor organization.

The notion that the Citizens United ruling might somehow make it easier for organized labor to influence the political process is "ludicrous," says DeMoro.

"Equating what unions and working people could spend on campaigns would be like comparing a toy boat to an aircraft carrier," she explains. "Corporate influence peddling in politics already distorts and prevents our democracy and political system (from functioning)."

"Opening the floodgates to unlimited spending is a dangerous prescription for candidates who will be even more beholden to the biggest corporate spenders," argues DeMoro. "The likely result would be more dominance of healthcare policy by insurance and drug giants and less public oversight of our air, water, food, and workplaces that is needed to protect consumers and workers."

That is the message that all of organized labor should be delivering.

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