Last month, a federal judge ruled that a new breed of political money machines—called “super PACs”—can get involved in Pennsylvania elections using an unlimited amount of union dues money. Well-known on the federal landscape, these supersized political action committees (PACs) will soon amplify the already dominant role unions play at election time.
Effectively, super PACs can collect and spend an unlimited amount of money to influence elections. They can also, unlike candidates or traditional PACs, accept funding from union dues and corporate accounts. They can’t give directly or coordinate their efforts with candidates, but they can run TV spots, radio ads, and mailers supporting or attacking candidates.
We’ve already seen the impact on state elections: Last year, a super PAC called Fund for Jobs, Growth & Security spent $8 million in New Jersey. More than $6 million of that total came from unions—nearly $1.2 million from union members’ dues. Another $4.85 million came from an arm of the New Jersey Education Association, which is the state’s largest teachers’ union.
The same super PAC, now called General Majority, is branching out to Pennsylvania, and they’re not shy about their plans. Their website proudly states they are “focused on electing Democratic state legislators” in states that “have been overrun by Republicans.” And, like in New Jersey, public unions can contribute.
Indeed, the Pennsylvania State Education Association has alerted its more than 180,000 members that up to 12 percent of their dues money will be used on politics this year. That amounts to more than $7 million which could end up in the hands of super PACs like General Majority—and that’s just one of Pennsylvania’s many public sector unions.
Nationally, union leaders themselves have declared plans to spend an unprecedented amount of money in state races in 2014. The AFL-CIO alone is committing $300 million to defeating Republicans. Further, the New York Times reports that unions are drumming up wedge issues like a minimum wage increase solely to win elections and flip five states from red to blue:
“A.F.L.-C.I.O. leaders said they would focus this fall on four industrial battlegrounds — Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, traditional union strongholds — and Florida. Their hope is to not only oust the Republican governors of those states, but also to flip several of the legislative chambers.”
Of course, unions have every right to participate in the political process just like everyone else. But in many states, including Pennsylvania, public sector unions have members’ dues and PAC contributions collected by taxpayers, forcing the public to subsidize their highly partisan political spending.
Union spending on politics is nothing new. Ten of the top 14 “heavy hitters” in national politics are unions, according to OpenSecrets.org. Moreover, 18 unions spent more on politics than the Koch brothers, the supposed puppet-masters of the “vast right wing conspiracy.”
Such direct spending on federal elections is only the tip of the iceberg—unions spend heavily in state and local races, and even more on political activity and lobbying with union dues. Nationally, unions spent $1.7 billion on politics in 2011 and 2012, according to the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.
Who’s helping unions throw this money around? State and local governments, including school districts, collect public sector union dues and even campaign contributions using public resources and send a check directly to union leaders.
As super PACs supersize political spending, it’s critical that lawmakers pass “paycheck protection.” Paycheck protection promises to right-size super PACs and draw a bright line between public resources and partisan politics by ending the taxpayer-funded collection of union political money.
Nathan A. Benefield is vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.