The short attention span of the American memory is notorious, so it is quite likely that many of us don’t recall that among of the supporters of Citizens United in their Supreme Court case versus the Federal Election Commission were unions. They felt they could also benefit from a loosening in campaign financing laws. They were squarely in the corner of the Citizens United group, who filed the suit originally because they were denied the ability to show their anti-Hillary Clinton film prior to the 2004 election when she was running for Senate in New York. When the Court decided in a 5-4 decision to rule in favor of Citizens United, it unleashed what nearly everyone has come to realize are corruption and candidates for hire. Moreover, as if part of a grand scheme, the Supreme Court has subsequently neutered unions and their ability to use the court’s decision to their advantage. Now, California has a new ballot measure, Proposition 32, which seeks to further limit the political power of unions. In the end, the only organizations that will end up benefiting from the Citizens United ruling will be corporate-funded organizations or those that are funded by exceptionally wealthy donors like the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson.
The case that got this all started began with McCain-Feingold, or the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which prohibited both corporations and unions from spending money to broadcast ads mentioning candidates for 30 days prior to a primary election and 60 days prior to a general election. It wasn’t long before the conservative group, Citizens United, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission because of Michael Moore’s movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, which was playing in theaters right before the 2004 election and mentions George W. Bush in a less than flattering manner. The Federal Election Commission ruled against the complaint, basically stating that the movie wasn’t a political ad, but instead was a commercial endeavor not intended to influence the election. This ticked the group off, so they decided the produce their own “film” called Hillary: The Movie. In this case, they were clearly targeting a candidate with the intention to influence her Senate election. When the Federal Election Commission said as much, Citizens United sued and lost in District Court. However, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court who obviously agreed to hear it.
There were many supporters of Citizens United. In addition to unions, the ACLU filed a brief in favor of striking down these rules established by McCain-Feingold. Many conservative organizations ranging from the US Chamber of Commerce to the Heritage Foundation to the National Rifle Association were strongly in favor of it. In fact, at the time, it seemed that the government (via the Federal Election Commission) was a lonely defendant with relatively few allies.
In the end, the Court didn’t just eliminate the limitations on corporate or union advertising during certain days prior to elections, they wiped out large portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, allowing money to flow into elections from everywhere, albeit not always directly. As many people have argued, they granted free speech rights or personhood to corporations and reinforced the notion that money is speech. (There are those who have argued here and here that these are not exactly the outcomes that occurred, though they are less widely heard.)
The American people initially reacted with dismay. One poll conducted in early February 2010 by ABC-Washington POST found that 80% opposed the Citizens United ruling with 65% strongly opposing it. Since not everyone was familiar with the Court’s decision directly (barely half of Americans were aware of it in January 2012), the survey’s respondents were specifically asked if they supported the idea that corporations and unions would be able to spend as much money as they wanted to in order to help political candidates in winning elections. They were also asked if they supported Congress putting limits on spending on elections by corporations and unions, and 72% said yes. More recent polls show there is actually a drop in opposition to Citizens United in the sense that now, 69%-73%, rather than 80%, are concerned about the corrupting influence of corporations and unions in elections.
With all this background in mind, we come to the present day, when conservatives are flooding “charitable” organizations and SuperPACs with cash whether via corporations or wealthy individuals. The only big money on the liberal side comes from unions and a smattering of wealthy individuals. The rare business or two may donate to the liberal side as well, but the big money is going to the conservative SuperPACs. Right now, business outspends labor 15 to 1. And now, as if the right wing planned it all along, the ability of unions to spend money on elections is steadily being chipped away. The Supreme Court ruled in Knox vs. SEIU that individuals that are represented by unions, but nonetheless are not members, would not be required to pay increased dues when the union was fighting ballot initiatives that negatively impact the union. Meanwhile, GOP federal election commissioners have ruled that employees of corporates can be compelled to campaign for political candidates.
And the hits keep on coming. The attacks on collective bargaining by many state governments have been relentless and often successful. The National Labor Relations Board tried to vote in favor of “speedy union elections,” which in essence would have given employees a streamlined process for voting to unionize. The US Chamber of Commerce sued to block the vote and so far has won in federal district court, though the NLRB is appealing. Then, another federal judge ruled that the NLRB couldn’t require private employers to post notices informing employees about their right to unionize under federal law.
But it’s the latest effort in California that would do even more significant damage to unions. With Proposition 32, with the Orwellian title, “Stop Special Interest Money Now Act,” voters will be deciding if even voluntary contributions to political campaigns by union members can be curtailed by making it illegal for unions to collect them via payroll deduction. Right now, unions are able to smoothly collect dues, including those used for political purposes using payroll deductions. Taking away that capacity would significantly reduce donations. This ballot initiative also prevents unions from donating money directly to candidates. Moreover, the deceptively named proposition actually puts in place loopholes for corporations to make it easier for them to spend campaign money and influence elections.
In essence, the only liberal groups that could have remotely benefited from the Citizens United decision were unions. In what can only be considered an act of folly at this point, they were sucked into supporting the disastrous case. What they didn’t seem to realize is that once conservatives had unlimited financial power in their grasp, the first thing they would do is turn all of their resources on dismantling their only foe. Unfortunately, they appear to be making significant strides in their efforts.