Big Labor’s Massive Political Machine
Ever wonder how much union dues cash Big Labor dumps into political campaigns?

Originally published September 9, 1997, by the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.

After ignoring the problem for decades, the media elite’s attention finally shifted to organized labor’s use of forced union dues for its political machine in 1996.

Of course, Big Labor’s coercion of employees into paying union dues to subsidize its political agenda isn’t new, since this practice is as old as the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). But with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney beating his chest about the Federation’s political spending, the coercion of workers to fund the AFL-CIO’s political operations became news.

As John Cunniff of the Associated Press reported just before Labor Day last year, workers "in 29 states and the District of Columbia, where right-to-work laws don’t exist, can be fired for refusing to pay union dues, even if those dues are used for purposes abhorrent to their religious, moral or political beliefs." (1) Those employees do have the right not to pay for union political activities with which they disagree, thanks to US Supreme Court decisions won by employees with the help of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. But, Cunniff reported, "most workers are unaware of this right, and union leadership seldom informs them of it." (2)

Of course, Big Labor could not get away with such brazen flouting of the law without federal labor board bureaucrats sanctioning it, and a president in Bill Clinton who owes his elected office to the forced-dues-fed support he has received from Big Labor. In the face of these roadblocks, it is no surprise that the same Harry Beck who led the fight to win this option in the Supreme Court recently wrote that instead of "regulat[ing]" a system where employees first pay forced dues, then negotiate with union bosses over how much they will get back, Congress should "END IT" by repealing its federal sanction. (3)

In an earlier issue brief, the National Institute for Labor Relations Research showed that union officials extract forced union dues from over 8 million private sector employees annually, and that the true cost of Big Labor’s nationwide campaign of mailings, phone banks and voter turnout drives adds up to at least $400 million each election cycle. (4)

With the dust still settling from the 1996 campaign, the evidence of Big Labor’s use of forced dues for the above mentioned "in-kind" activities , continues to accumulate, as it has for nearly 30 years

Snapshots from 1996

Previously, the Institute documented a series of snapshots from past elections highlighting Big Labor’s in-kind politicking across the country. What follows are the latest examples from 1996.

  • While the AFL-CIO today claims to have targeted only 32 House districts, The New York Times reported on October 31 that "organizers paid by the national AFL-CIO are active in 96 House districts" putting together "the greatest get-out-the-vote effort unions have mounted in many years."

As the Times points out, these were political operatives from the national AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, DC only. According to the disclosure forms submitted by all private sector unions, local, state and national, their total payroll expenses are approximately 2.25 billion dollars a year. If only 10 percent of that time was spent on the "96 election this year — a low estimate — that alone adds up to $225 million in unreported political activities.

Of course, there was also the AFL-CIO massive television campaign to account for. It’s highly unlikely that the mere $35 million assessment of each union member under the AFL-CIO’s control which Sweeney bragged about paid for the TV ads. Here are just a few glimpses from different angles of the iceberg.

  • In Ohio’s 10th district, the AFL-CIO told The New York Times on October 11 that it spent $385,000 on television advertising between April and September. But an ad tracking agency informed the Republican Congressional Committee that the AFL-CIO actually spent $1.2 million on TV ads in that same time period against Republican Congressman Martin Hoke.

As the Times noted, "By any standard, it is a lot of money, especially when [Hoke’s opponent, Dennis] Kucinich estimates he will spend only $300,000 on his campaign " And it is only part" of the union effort in the 10th, the Times goes on: "David Lauridsen at AFL-CIO headquarters detailed other activities, from phone banks making "persuasion calls’ to union members and retirees, to door-to-door canvassing in the heavily pro-labor precincts, to recruiting" union members to help in Kucinich’s campaign.

  • In Arizona’s 6th district, the Times also reported on October 11, the AFL-CIO paid to run ads against freshman congressman J.D. Hayworth "as many as 300 times a week" up to 50 times a day." The cost" At least $1 million, according to the Times.
  • In Michigan’s eighth district, the AFL-CIO told the Times on October 31 that it had spent about $400,000 in advertising to unseat Dick Chrysler. But the GOP congressional committee insisted that its ad tracking showed at least $600,000 in spending by the AFL-CIO.

In that same article, Dr. Anthony Corrado, a political science professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, described those estimates of the union ad spending as "very good" because of new technology making it possible to track such spending.

Indeed, the Times reports, "In Maine’s First District, where [organized] labor has been pummeling representative James B. Longley, Jr., [Corrado] said, the [GOP congressional committee’s] figure of $901,703 was more believable than the Federation’s estimate of $450,000." All of which adds credibility to Congressman Bill Paxon’s statement that, all in all, the union hierarchy spent some $100 million in advertising alone.

Tip of the Iceberg: 30 Years & Counting

On March 21, 1996, professor Leo Troy of Rutgers University told the US House of Representatives Oversight Committee that organized labor’s in-kind political expenses "could reasonably be a multiple of 3 to 5 times" the total expenses of union Political Action Committees (PACs). In other words, while union PACs spent about $95 million on the 1992 campaign, total union political spending actually hovered between $300 million and $500 million.

Troy’s estimate is simply the latest confirmation that organized labor’s political activities cost American workers far more than union officials admit. For 30 years, various experts on unions have confirmed, and even union officials themselves have admitted that their political expenses far exceed what is reported to federal authorities.

Victor Riesel Pulls Back the Veil

Until his retirement in 1990, Victor Riesel was probably the nation’s best-known labor columnist. Raised in a union household, Riesel "never stopped inveighing against gangster infiltration and other corruption in labor unions that had stirred his emotions since his youth," according to his obituary in the January 5, 1995 New York Times. Indeed, for exposing corruption in a Long Island local of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Riesel was blinded by an acid attack in 1956.

Based on his in-depth knowledge of union finances, Riesel estimated that in addition to organized labor’s direct contributions of around $1 million to federal candidates in 1968 and 1972, union officials actually spent $60 million in "68 and $50 million in "72.

When Alexander Barkan, director of the AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education (COPE), complained that these were gross overestimates, Riesel replied in the Orlando Sentinel-Star on November 3, 1973:

If you apply cost accounting to what the unions do in a political way " you will find that the noncash contributions consist of staff time " meaning union officials who are assigned to campaigns for months on end " printing costs, postage, telephone and various other support services financed entirely with compulsory union dues and fees.

It is time and services, not just cash contributions alone, which I consider in making my estimates. I know my estimates are right. I know they spent the time and money. Let them open their books if they say they didn’t.

In 1976, Riesel reported, organized labor spent more than $100 million on their political operations " more than 10 times the $10 million in PAC contributions which union officials reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). (5)

1992: Union Boss Spills Beans

During the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Dennis Rivera, chief of the Health Care Employees union’s New York City local, told CBS reporter Paula Zahn that organized labor "put $47 million into the candidates for the Democratic Party," with the nationwide Fall campaign still to come.(6)

When Rivera made that comment on July 15, only $10 million in union PAC contributions had been reported to the FEC. Thus, by a union boss’s own admission, total union political spending at this stage was nearly five times their reported PAC contributions. By the end of "92 campaign, union PACs had contributed $41.4 million. By the standard set by Riesel, it is clear that Big Labor spent some $400 million nationwide on its political machine.

Former Teamster Exposes Massive Politicking

For 14 years, F.C. "Duke" Zeller was head of Public Relations at the Teamsters’ Washington, DC headquarters until he was fired by new union president Ron Carey. In his book, Devil’s Pact, Zeller quotes a Teamsters vice president, Gene Giacumbo, who revealed that Carey once boasted to the union’s executive board that the Teamsters spent $56 million to aid the Democrats’ campaign. (7) Officially, the Teamsters PAC reported $2.4 million in direct contributions to candidates in 1992.

High Court Compromise Fails to Protect Employees’ Freedom of Speech

Faced with the dilemma of workers forced to pay union fees for political causes with which they disagree, the US Supreme Court has spent more than 30 years trying to forge a compromise. Union officials have been allowed to force employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment, but not pay for political and other non-bargaining activities. This compromise was crowned in 1988, with the High Court’s decision in Communications Workers v. Beck.

However, Supreme Court precedents are not self-enforcing, and so long as union officials are allowed to thrust their hands into employees’ pockets, it is impossible for any employees or group of employees to effectively ensure that they are not subsidizing a union’s political agenda.

To begin with, most unions, with the approval of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), still negotiate contracts stating that "membership in good standing" is required " in other words, join the union and pay full membership dues or be fired. Even after the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1994 that such clauses should be stricken from union contracts, the NLRB still refuses to follow that order. (8)

Thus, while exit polling showed that nearly 40% of union members did not vote to reelect Bill Clinton in 1996, nearly three-quarters of all union members do not know of their right not to pay forced dues for politics.(9)

Even when employees do discover this right, they must still attempt to negotiate with union officials over how much the officials get to seize from their paychecks. The late Justice Hugo Black understood the problem well when, in 1961, he dissented from the Supreme Court’s first ruling involving the use of forced union dues for politics:

It may be that courts and lawyers with sufficient skill in accounting, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus will be able to extract the proper microscopic answer from the voluminous and complex accounting records of the local, national, and international unions involved. It seems to me " however, that " this formula with its attendant trial burdens promises little hope for financial recompense to the individual workers whose First Amendment freedoms have been flagrantly violated. (10)

The only proper remedy in this case, Justice Black concluded, was to relieve protesting workers of all payment of dues. (11)

However, there is perhaps no greater authority on the misuse of forced dues for politics than the telephone lineman whose 12-year legal battle won for most private sector employees the right not to pay for union politics, Harry Beck.

As Beck wrote in the Wall Street Journal on November 1 of last year, his fight really began in the 1960s when, as an organizer for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), he "noticed that the CWA brass paid little attention to the needs of the rank and file, concentrating instead on supporting Democratic political campaigns and liberal social causes." Yet, when he resigned his formal membership in the CWA, the union hierarchy slapped him with compulsory "agency fees" equal to full membership dues.

With free legal assistance from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Beck filed suit against the CWA in 1976, and was finally vindicated by the US Supreme Court on June 29, 1988. But with union bosses continuing to lie to employees about their rights, the NLRB continuing to sanction the lies, and a Clinton administration which was willing to tear down all workplace notices about employees’ Beck rights, Beck himself concluded:

[U]ntil Congress repeals or the High Court overturns the federal sanction of compulsory dues, workers will not have their full freedoms.

In Beck’s view, the only bill pending in Congress which would accomplish that is the National Right to Work Act. (12)

The freedom Beck speaks of is at least as old as Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1779, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical." It is clear that John Sweeney and the president he helped reelect are suffering from dramatic memory lapses.


(1) John Cunniff, "Members can get dues back; Law works against union political spending," Beacon Journal, August 31, 1996.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Harry Beck, Letter to the Editor, July, 1997.

(4) National Institute for Labor Relations Research, Issue Brief, "Forced Dues?Fuel For Big Labor’s Political Machine," June 11, 1996.

(5) Victor Riesel, "Unions Collect Huge Bankroll For Campaign,"The Commercial Appeal, Sept. 5, 1976.

(6) Paula Zahn, interview with Dennis Rivera (Hospital Workers Union), CBS-TV, 10:00-11:00 PM, July 15, 1992.

(7) Jerry Seper, "Book claims Teamster kept Clinton slush fund," The Washington Times, October 28, 1996.

(8) Ray LaJeunesse, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation attorney, testifying before the Senate Committee on Rules Hearing on Campaign Finance, June 25, 1997.

(9) Luntz Research Companies, Initial Findings of a National Survey of Union Members, April 29, 1996.

(10) Machinists v. Street, 367 US 740 (1961) at 795-96.

(11) Id. at 796.

(12) Harry Beck, "How the AFL-CIO Funds its War Chest,"Wall Street Journal, November 1, 1996.