The Myth of Powerful Unions

Dad: “What do you want to be when you grow up, Jimmy?”
Jimmy: “A lobbyist.”

On June 1, 2013, the New York Times published the names of the top-twelve biggest spending lobbyists of 2012. It’s a fascinating list. Despite all the propaganda, disinformation and outright lies about organized labor that have been circulated by right-wing groups, there’s not a single labor union listed among them—not even the estimable AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in history.

The reason there are no unions included is because, as any labor aficionado will tell you, organized labor doesn’t have anywhere near the clout that the big boys have. Despite the hype (“Unions are too powerful!”), organized labor is still camped out on the margins, still very much on the outside, looking in. Senators and congressmen—even the honest ones—don’t come cheap. They don’t come cheap, and they don’t come easy.

In order to buy (or, less cynically, “rent”) an elected representative for the purpose of having him or her do your legislative bidding, you need to put your money where it will do the most good, which is to say you need to hire lobbyists. Below is the Times’ list of this Dirty Dozen, with the amount of money (in millions of dollars) each of them spent in 2012.

1. U.S. Chamber of Commerce 136.3
2. National Association of Realtors 41.5
3. Blue Cross/Blue Shield 22.5
4. General Electic 22.1
5. American Hospital Association 19.2
6. National Cable and Telecommunication Association 18.9
7. Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America 18.5
8. Google 18.2
9. Northrup Grumman 17.5
10. AT&T 17.4
11. American Medical Association 16.5
12. Boeing 15.6

A quick perusal indicates that pretty much all the usual suspects are present. Leading the pack by a wide margin is, of course, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (the biggest lobbyist in the world), whose CEO, Thomas Donahue, makes no secret of the fact that he despises unions. Then you have your industrial/financial people, your insurance companies, your drug makers, your medical folks, your defense industry honchos, and your communication barons.

A sharp-eyed individual might ask where the energy lobbyists are. For that answer, you can visit OpenSecrets.org, which has expanded the list from twelve to twenty. There you will find, nestled in spot #18, Royal Dutch Shell, the second-largest company in the world (in total revenue), which spent a reported $14.4 million on lobbying efforts in 2012. And again, even in the expanded list, there are no unions included.

Skeptics will gleefully note that organized labor has, over the last several decades, donated a tremendous amount of money to the Democratic Party. That’s absolutely true. But even though organized labor has given a ton of money to the Democrats (it’s been estimated that labor donated approximately $400 million to the 2008 campaign), they’ve gotten precious little in return for it.

In fact, if you look at the committee work and voting records, you’ll see that organized labor has received little more than lip service in return. That’s because to get a congressman to rise above the level of glib rhetoric and empty promises (and actually vote the way you want him to), you need to do more than elect him. Electing him is merely the first step. You need to focus him. Work him. Manipulate him. And for that, you require a lobbyist.

Until labor unions learn how to do that—learn how to play the system the way America’s corporations play it—they will continue to shrink in both membership and overall influence. National union membership is hovering around 11-percent, down from an historic high of nearly 35-percent. That’s not just disheartening; it’s alarming. No wonder the middle-class is disintegrating.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.