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Political Spending by Public-Sector Unions Is Deep Blue

More than 95 percent of PAC spending from the four biggest public-sector unions went to Democrats, according to the Commonwealth Foundation.

Union worker rally.
Last July, AFSCME members rallied on behalf of workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
(Charles Fox/TNS)
In Brief:
  • In the 2021-2022 election cycle, the biggest public-sector unions spent more than $700 million on election-related activity.
  • This included $160 million from union political action committees. Nearly 96 percent of that went to Democratic causes.
  • Most members of public-sector unions may be Democrats, but Republican causes get almost no support.

  • It’s not a huge surprise that most political spending by public employee unions benefits Democrats. Still, it’s notable just how lopsided their spending is. Almost 96 percent of political action committee (PAC) spending by the four largest public-sector unions that could be traced went to Democratic candidates and organizations, according to a new report from the Commonwealth Foundation.

    In total, the four largest public employee unions — the National Education Association; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — spent more than $700 million on election-related activity during the 2021-2022 election cycle.

    Nearly $160 million of that amount came from member contributions to their PACs. The rest of the political money came from union dues. It’s not possible to get an equally clear picture where that money went. David Osborne, senior fellow of labor policy at the Commonwealth Foundation and a co-author of the report, is troubled by the lack of transparency. But he says there are signs that, as with the PAC contributions, union dues are disproportionately supporting progressive causes.

    He’s concerned that union leaders are thus making choices about political spending that don’t reflect the priorities of all union members. Osborne recognizes that as many as 60 or 70 percent of public-sector union members might be Democrats. But only 4 percent of union PAC dollars went to Republican causes. “That imbalance seems to me to be something more than paying their dues to the government,” he says. “Instead, there seems to be an agenda that members have very little control over.”

    That spending imbalance is a reflection of a “leftist” agenda, the Commonwealth report claims. AFSCME officials counter that it’s simpler than that: They support candidates who share the values of public service workers. At present, most pro-union candidates are on one side — namely, the Democratic Party.

    Too Big a Voice?

    It’s to be expected that public employee unions would pay extra attention to what candidates and parties have to say about them. One in three public-sector workers are union members, five times the rate among private-sector workers. In California, more than half of all union members work in government.

    Still, conservatives often complain that the political sway of public employees unions distorts governmental decision-making, since their nominal bosses have to fear or court them as political financiers. Public employee unions devoted about $145 million of their PAC funds to state and local politics, with $118 million of this going to candidates for office or partisan PACs. (See map for state-by-state counts and party distribution.)

    Unions aren’t doing anything that violates the law, Osborne is quick to point out, but he questions whether it’s a good thing for them to be able to influence who ends up on the other side of a negotiating table. “I don't think that's the way that collective bargaining was supposed to work,” he says. “I think they were supposed to be across the bargaining table from a party with adverse interests.”

    Backing Existing Allies

    As an example of this problem, Osborne points to the support Democrat Josh Shapiro received in his successful campaign for governor of Pennsylvania last year. “He was the top recipient of union PAC money this past election cycle,” Osborne says, “and within a year of winning the governorship he bargains with AFSCME and SEIU, and they get huge raises.”

    As with other political donors, unions tend to support politicians who’ve already demonstrated that they see eye to eye. Shapiro had long been sympathetic to public-sector unions, including during his previous tenure as state attorney general. “Unions give workers a voice and make government operate more effectively,” Shapiro wrote in an amicus brief filed with 20 other state attorneys general in a 2018 Supreme Court case involving AFSCME.

    “Right-to-work” policies were also a central issue in his gubernatorial campaign against Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano. “When I’m governor, this will never be a right-to-work state, never,” Shapiro said at a campaign rally in Philadelphia.

    Osborne says he would have the same concerns if the great majority of union funds started to go in the other direction. “The basic point here is that public-sector unions should be getting out of the business of politics, and that soliciting and accepting membership dues isn’t a license to support members of either party,” he says.

    AFSCME officials counter that it’s essential for them to support lawmakers who are pro-union, and they see more of a funding gap than an overspend on their part. “These tend to not be the same candidates preferred by the billionaires who fund anti-union special interests,” AFSCME said in a statement.

    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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