Few Supreme Court decisions have aroused the Left's ire as much as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It opened the floodgates for corporate money in elections, they say.
Only occasionally do news stories point out that the decision lifted restrictions on independent political spending by Big Labor too. Rarer still is it published that Big Labor fought for that decision, and that Big Labor has fought against congressional Democrats who are trying to undo the impact of the ruling.
Call it a love-hate relationship. Publicly, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sticks to the Left's mantra when asked about the issue. "It is polluting the airwaves," he said at a National Press Club event Thursday.
Yet unions have spent tens of millions on super-PACs to flood the airwaves with attack ads ever since the ruling, even as they curse the law for letting Big Business do same thing.
The AFL-CIO filed an amicus brief in the case "in support of the Appellant" -- that is, in support of Citizens United, the conservative media group that had been targeted by the Federal Elections Commission.
In its brief, the union coalition argued that campaign spending laws should be overturned on free-speech grounds: "[L]abor organizations, including the AFL-CIO, and corporations, including Citizens United, remain subject to an unworkable censorship regime."
This isn't to say that the AFL-CIO was making the case for Big Business. As it argued later in the brief, unions have "crucial differences" from corporations -- namely that they are "democratic, member-controlled organizations." Their campaign treasuries "accurately reflect" members' support for their unions' political agenda and therefore the members' collective voice shouldn't be restricted.
In short, the AFL-CIO agreed with the court's final ruling in principle. But the union really wanted the Supreme Court to lift the caps on donations for them yet keep them in place for corporations. They wanted the justices to tilt the playing field in their favor.
It was a weak argument. In 26 states, union contracts can coerce workers to pay dues even if they aren't members. Unions are supposed to get permission from those workers before using that money for political purposes, but it doesn't always work that way. A Supreme Court case decided last month, Knox v. Service Employees International Union, found that a union had illegally forced nonmembers to contribute to its political activities, without giving them a chance to opt out.
In any event, the court ruling threw out the restrictions on both corporations and unions to make donations to political action committees, creating the so-called super-PACs.
Democratic lawmakers immediately began working on legislative responses to counter it. Their main vehicle became the DISCLOSE Act, which forbade foreign contributions and expanded disclosure requirements.
The AFL-CIO opposed it, even adopting a free-market argument against burdensome regulations in the process. In a legislative alert dated July 2010, the union said that "the Senate bill imposes extraordinary new, costly, and impractical record-keeping and reporting obligations."
Since then, the Democrats' legislative efforts to counter the effects of Citizens United have fizzled and mostly been forgotten.
Meanwhile, Big Labor has been a key funder of every major pro-Democrat super-PAC, having given about $28 million combined to them in 2010 and 2012, according to the latest figures from the Center for Responsive Politics. And that's just the money we know about so far -- reports are still rolling in for the current election cycle.
Moreover, that's a drop in the bucket compared with the total amounts Big Labor is spending. The Wall Street Journal recently concluded, based on Labor Department reports, that total union spending on elections and lobbying since 2005, counting all nationals and locals, amounts to a staggering $4.4 billion. That's not a typo -- billion, with a "B."
Trumka argues unions are still working from a disadvantage.
"We've never competed with them moneywise," Trumka said. "We don't have anyone that can drop $10 million in a single state."
Of course, if the Citizens United ruling had gone Trumka's way, unions wouldn't have needed somebody like that.
Sean Higgins (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.