Unions Out of Politics

Get Worker Organizations Out of Partisan Politics

Prohibit traditional unions—and any other organizations that collect mandatory worker dues, have legal authority to represent workers in collective bargaining, or provide workers with government-funded benefits—from spending funds on partisan political activities. Affiliated PACs with independent fundraising can make such expenditures, as 501(c)(4) political action groups separate from 501(c)(3) nonprofits do today.

American labor unions have become predominantly political organizations, representing only 6% of the private-sector workforce but spending nearly $2 billion during the 2020 election cycle. And while union members hold a wide range of political views, more than 99% of spending by the largest unions goes to Democrats and the political left. Perhaps for these reasons, “union political involvement” is the top reason cited by workers who do not want to join a union. Not a single policy issue, from a list of 20 on which the AFL-CIO and SEIU are actively engaged, was selected by a majority of workers as one that they would want to see a union speak out on. Given a choice of a worker organization that devotes its resources “only to issues facing you and your coworkers at your workplace” or “to both national political issues and issues facing you and your coworkers at your workplace,” potential union members select “workplace issues only” by 74% to 26%. Unions that could not spend on politics would better serve their members, which is their primary—indeed, only—role.

No reason exists that worker organizations created and recognized by law need to engage in partisan politics. This is especially true when workers are required to pay dues toward support of the organization and would be even more true if the organizations were able to receive public and employer funds as well to provide benefits and training to members. Indeed, asked to allocate points across different functions that a worker organization could provide, workers allocate eight times as many to benefits and training as to politics. A proposal that would allow worker organizations to receive public funds for training and benefits but prohibit those organizations from political spending is viewed favorably by 56% of adults in the working class and unfavorably by 17%.

The United States should prohibit political spending by worker organizations, comparable to the prohibition on political spending by 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. The ban should apply to any organization recognized by the National Labor Relations Act as the exclusive bargaining representative for a group of workers, any organization that receives compulsory dues from workers, and any organization that receives employer or public funds to provide benefits or training to workers. Such organizations could still create separate political action groups and raise voluntary contributions from workers and other sources to fund political activity.