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Unions Can’t Buy Elections, But Let’s Pretend They Can

It was late October 1996, and Congressman Frank Cremeans was in trouble. Polls showed the Republican freshman running neck-and-neck in Ohio’s Sixth Congressional District with the man he narrowly unseated in 1994, Democrat Ted Strickland. Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey showed up on October 30 and lent Cremeans a hand by stumping throughout his poor, Appalachian district. Armey implored the voters not to be fooled by the “voter education guides” that the AFL-CIO had been airing on local television stations. The Sixth, despite its large contingent of steelworkers and brick plant workers, would be, according to Armey, a district where “big labor” was taught a lesson. “We want to win at a level that would humiliate them!” he told one crowd.

Cremeans lost the election by 2.4 percentage points, or 5,300 votes. Did the AFL-CIO’s campaign make the difference here? Maybe. But if anyone in the district really wanted to get the dirt on Cremeans, they could have found it just about anywhere: The Dayton Daily News anointed Cremeans’s 1994 candidacy a “bad joke,” and a number of southern Ohio newspapers carried news of Cremeans’s nomination by The Progressive as one of the ten “dimmest bulbs” in Congress. During the campaign, Cremeans made odd insinuations about the sexual abilities of his opponent and declared that homosexuality had caused the fall of the Roman Empire. In 1996, he accused Strickland of being anti-Christian, of abetting riots in the Lucasville State Penitentiary, and of stealing machinery from Cremeans’s concrete mixing business. It’s hard to say that anyone who cared about the election enough to pay attention to the AFL-CIO commercials didn’t already have plenty of reasons to vote against Cremeans.

But let’s say that labor did make the difference, as both the AFL-CIO and Cremeans have claimed. In fact, let’s suppose, just for the sake of argument, that labor money made the difference in each of the 19 races in which incumbent Republicans were defeated. What then? Well, if you listen to much of the news media, it means that labor is in big trouble. Linda Killian, writing in The New Republic, claims that “What the AFL-CIO may have bought is a GOP majority that will do everything it can to ensure that labor pays for its ambitions.” Republican National Committee Chair Haley Barbour has vowed that campaign finance will be reformed to curb the baleful influence of labor. Laughable though the prospects of campaign finance reform may seem, labor’s $35 million campaign got plenty of people mad enough to talk about it. Republicans have pledged to attack labor on a number of fronts—to curtail the ability of unions to use membership dues for campaign advocacy, to make it more difficult for workers to get overtime pay, and to allow companies to reduce unions’ bargaining power by setting up company unions.

Today, after six months of revelations about corporate donors and the corruption their money spawned, labor’s contributions seem both clean and remarkably puny. What was all the fuss about? Only 19 of the 64 incumbent Republicans targeted by the AFL-CIO lost their re-election bids. At first glance, labor’s effort looks like the disaster described by The New Republic. Labor failed to win back Congress, and given the widespread backlash against the congressional Republican agenda, even in districts where labor played no role (witness “B-1” Bob Dornan’s defeat in Orange County, hardly a union bastion), it is difficult to make the case that the AFL-CIO was a pivotal actor in this year’s elections.

But evaluated in other ways, the AFL-CIO’s campaign effort brought a remarkable payoff. For one thing, it instantly snowballed into a massive free advertising campaign that unions would never have been able to afford without the cooperation of the media and their Republican foes. Dick Armey is hardly a popular figure these days, and when he says he wants to humiliate labor, it sets off warning bells for a lot of people who ordinarily don’t give much thought to the subject. What was missed in the media’s post-election coverage is that labor could not buy the 1996 elections, and labor leaders knew it. All that mattered was that Republicans needed a scapegoat, and the media have enthusiastically joined in labor’s demonization.

No interest group can, by itself, buy elections; it can, however, buy access and recognition.

Though it might not sound like it, this is a positive development. The more Republicans fulminate about “union bosses” and “big labor,” the more they contribute to the perception that labor has a role to play in politics. And if labor is perceived as a major player, its issues become major issues. Union members strayed from the Democratic fold in the 1980s and early 1990s because Republican candidates were successful in bringing what are called “social issues” to the fore; union members were voting Republican because of things like gun control and abortion. But if union members can be reminded of the connection between their pocketbooks and their voting habits, they will come back together as a voting bloc. This is what the AFL-CIO aimed for, and what, to some degree, began to happen—with the help of the Republican demonizers.

If Republican strategists want The Baffler’s two cents, they would be better off simply ignoring the AFL-CIO. Fortunately for union sympathizers, our opinions don’t count for much inside the Beltway.

Labor traditionally and correctly refuses to regard itself as just another interest group, as kin, say, to the NRA, or NFIB. But its 1996 campaign effort had much in common with the efforts of average interest groups, and it should be evaluated accordingly. No interest group can, by itself, buy elections; it can, however, buy access and recognition. Interest groups need plenty of help in order to affect national policy. Thanks to its 1996 effort, labor looks like it is in good position to get that help. In other words, measured by the criteria usually applied to interest group lobbying, labor’s $35 million turns out to have been remarkably well-spent. Here’s a simple crash course in interest group behavior to show why:

1. Interest groups rarely make contributions solely to change the composition of Congress. When they do try, they seldom succeed. Labor PACs are unusual in that they are among the largest and most partisan of PACs; historically, they have also given greater support to non-incumbent candidates than have other PACs. Yet they are still playing the same game other PACs play. A little known fact of the 1996 elections is that $3.2 million of labor’s contributions went to (gasp!) Republicans; five of these Republicans defended their seats against Democrats who were also recipients of union contributions. Jack Quinn, who was re-elected to a Buffalo, New York seat, topped the list, parlaying his moderate voting record, his opposition to NAFTA and GATT, and his support for the Family and Medical Leave Act into $91,000 in labor contributions. New Jersey’s Bill Martini, labor’s number two Republican with $69,000, did not fare so well; he lost by 3,000 votes to a labor-supported Democrat, William Pascrell. In both cases unions had their butts covered. Unions still need friends in the Republican Party, and they still have a few. Nor did the Republican power brokers have many personal battles with labor—virtually all of the 64 targeted Republicans were freshman or sophomore representatives. People like John Kasich, Henry Hyde, and even more powerful Republicans facing strong opponents, like Gingrich, didn’t have to fight the AFL-CIO directly in their campaigns. When The New Republic cites Republicans who are plotting revenge, it pays scant attention to the fact that these are all relatively junior, powerless Republicans.

Political science-speak for what labor did is “buying access.” It doesn’t mean you get what you want from everyone; instead, it means you can walk in the door of your congressman’s office without getting kicked out. It means that although the really tough kids, the committee chairs and the power brokers, might not do what you want, they won’t be mad enough to pick fights with you. It also means that if you show the weak kids you can kick their ass, maybe next time they’ll do what you want without putting up a fight. It means people will at least listen to you and try not to provoke you.

2. For an interest group to maintain its own membership, it must be able to report to its members that their contributions made a difference. A primary task for the AFL-CIO in this election was to persuade its members that their economic interests as workers and as union members were more important than other political concerns they might have. It had to persuade union members to think of themselves as union members first, and as Catholics or gun owners a distant second. The media and the Republican Party have been quite helpful here. The more credit unions get for their role in the election, the more the average union member will take pride in membership and equate the interests of the union with his or her own economic well-being. Take a close look at where union money went in this election: While the AFL-CIO did some independent expenditure on TV, most of what they did was phone-banking the membership on issues and trying to heal their divisions over single “social” issues.

“What they really zeroed in on was explaining to their own members policies as they related to job security and union positions at the bargaining table,” says Wisconsin Democrat Lydia Spottswood, who was narrowly defeated by Mark Neumann in Wisconsin’s First District. “They didn’t want any of their membership going into the voting booth not knowing what it means when their representative votes for ‘right to work’ or ‘team’ legislation or to permit the permanent replacement of striking workers.”

But if you’re not a union member, you don’t see this sort of behind-the-scenes work. So it’s easy for commentators, junior media critics all, to misunderstand the AFL-CIO effort as a blunt attempt to buy the election.

3. Current campaign finance laws virtually preclude the ability of any one group to have an effect on the outcome of elections. Especially if that group only spends $35 million. Labor got attention because it told people how much it spent—and attention was exactly what it wanted to get. It’s nearly impossible to tell how much other groups lavished on pet politicos; as the current Clinton brouhaha illustrates, soft money is hard to document. Congressional Quarterly estimates that business PACs outspent labor by a 7-to-1 margin; 70 percent of that money went to Republicans. And if you scan FEC reports, you’ll note that this doesn’t include groups such as the mysteriously titled “Freedom Club,” which bankrolled several Minnesota Republicans, and the even more nebulous “Committee to Reform,” which poured money into the campaigns of several Illinois Republicans.

The AFL-CIO appears to have spent up to $500,000 in independent expenditures on TV commercials in some districts—naturally, Republicans drastically overstated how much was spent—yet even this was not necessarily enough to sway an election. Competitive races for Congress generally require a minimum of $700,000 in direct spending by each candidate; independent expenditures can often double this amount. Many Democratic challengers reported their frustration that whenever a soft money ad was aired in their district, Republicans were able to go out and raise more money to counter this ad almost instantly. Many of the targeted Republicans, including Cremeans, were able to go running to business groups and get soft-money ads to counter the AFL-CIO claims.

“When winning becomes more important than principle, then you’ve gone too far.”

4. Interest groups seldom have a real impact on elections, but it is to their advantage to claim that they do. The most noticeable feature of the AFL-CIO’s spending was that it put most of its money behind likely winners. The only link that can be drawn between all of the targeted Republicans is that they were all vulnerable. Some, such as Martini, were relatively friendly to labor. Others, such as Wisconsin Congressman Mark Neumann, were among labor’s main enemies. But who received the most support from labor? Chicago’s Rod Blagojevich, a virtual shoo-in against one-termer Michael Flanagan on the solidly Democratic North Side, former home of Dan Rostenkowski. Blagojevich would have won regardless of what labor did in his campaign. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO didn’t bother to help several ardently pro-labor candidates in districts near Blagojevich’s—and they all lost. This is a strategy that has drawn much criticism. One losing candidate told The Baffler:

Labor organizations only give money to the races they deem winnable. This is a position I take issue with, because if they don’t mount efforts in races where their opponent has a history of being anti-union, how can they hope to raise the consciousness of people and to defeat anti-union thinking? The AFL-CIO needs to think more long-term about how to spend their money, because they can have more of an impact by even giving token contributions. You’d be surprised what a campaign like ours can do with $50.

“The AF of L being so outspoken about wanting to return organized labor but not doing anything to help me, when I’m running against their number one enemy, to me that’s unprincipled,” said another defeated Democrat. “When winning becomes more important than principle, then you’ve gone too far.”

But politically, the decision not to help these candidates made sense. Most interest groups behave like this; you get credit for winning elections. Few would have cared if labor had helped several long-shot challengers get 45 percent of the vote instead of 25 percent. Challengers usually get only a little over 10 percent of the PAC money doled out in congressional races; while labor consistently gives more money to challengers than do other groups, it gave its money to people whose bandwagon it could ride, regardless of whether they needed the help or not.

5. Campaign contributions seldom harm a group’s goals. Sitting on the sidelines can, though. This is not political science, it is common sense, yet this principle is consistently disregarded by the media. Pundits from The New Republic to the Washington Times (certainly not as great an ideological leap as it once was) have grasped some of the above points, but they have looked in the wrong places to divine the effects of labor’s campaign. Killian cites right-wing Wisconsinite Mark Neumann as an example of a Republican who, with the help of $1.4 million, beat the AFL-CIO-sponsored Spottswood and now vows vengeance. But consider these facts: Neumann eked out a narrow 2 percent victory in a district where one of three households contains a union member. He may talk tough in the company of other Republicans, but it would be political idiocy for him to spit on the interests of the 49 percent of voters who did not support his re-election. It would be a dare to unions to try harder next time.

Successful politicians moderate their positions, or at least their rhetoric, to reflect their districts. Neumann and many other Republican freshmen proudly refused to do so, but if the price of remaining far to the right of one’s constituents is over a million dollars per election, some may change their minds. And contrary to The New Republic’s report, Neumann has in fact made a public show of just such an “aw, shucks, let’s forget about the past and just be friends” demeanor since his victory. He broke ranks with his party early in the 105th Congress to vote against Newt Gingrich’s re-election as speaker. And consider which Republicans have been most vocal about labor since election day. Cleveland’s Martin Hoke has vociferously claimed that labor did him in; he can afford to, since he’s looking for a job right now. Frank Cremeans has decried the distortions of his record perpetrated by the nefarious liberal elites; he’s back in the concrete business now. Many of the Republican members of Congress whom Killian quotes are from districts with little union membership; Arizona’s John Shadegg, for example, represents one of the most affluent and conservative districts in the state; he has little to lose from anti-union rhetoric.

This isn’t to say that some Republicans don’t want to get back at labor. The fact is that they won’t, and probably can’t. They can’t beat labor in the direct manner favored by right-wingers in the past—by branding union activists radicals, by bemoaning the anti-democratic influence of union dollars while simultaneously raking in bucks from chambers of commerce everywhere. The Republican anti-labor stance of the 1980s succeeded by driving a wedge between union leaders and the rank and file, whipping up workers’ anger at “elite” officials who spent their dues to further their own ambitions. The relative torpor of the Kirkland years let the Republicans get away with this, but the crucial thing to understand about the 1996 election is that this pseudo-populist brand of conservatism is showing signs of wearing thin. At the very least, the Republicans are showing signs of giving up on it. Either it doesn’t work anymore or the congressional Republicans have forgotten how they got there. You choose.

Shortly after the election, the Cleveland Plain Dealer cited an AFL-CIO poll that showed that 72 percent of union members approved of the federation’s political spending. This number raises the question of what was going on in the minds of those members—a minimum, by my calculations, of 7 percent—who voted Republican yet approved of labor’s campaign. But if the AFL-CIO figures are in the ballpark (and they probably are), it looks like the Republicans are losing their ability to persuade union workers that their leaders are out of touch with them. Appeals to workers on “social issues” might still be one way for the GOP to win their votes, but at the risk of alienating more affluent libertarian voters, the ones who do things like contribute to Republican candidates and join business PACs. The stalemated Republican agenda on “family” issues in the 104th Congress testifies to this quandary. The only other alternative is to try to change the laws so they specifically limit union spending. While the current campaign finance system is surely ripe for overhaul, the Republicans don’t have the power to change it without limiting the power of their own PACs as well. Unions are already required to let their members know what percentage of their dues goes to political advocacy campaigns, and to give a partial refund if members ask for one. Republicans can try harder to publicize the refund option, but if the 72 percent figure is right, it wouldn’t be worth the effort.

It is to labor’s advantage to have congressional Republicans foaming at the mouth. Interest groups thrive on danger. Throughout the 1980s, liberals capitalized upon the threat Reagan and Bush posed to their interests; during the 1990s, countless right-wing groups have done the same thing with Clinton. As things have worked out this time, Republicans are a little scared and are responding the way unions want them to—talking about smashing labor while simultaneously trying hard to appease it behind the scenes. One of labor’s pet projects for the next Congress, for example, is the passage of a health care package that would cover all American children currently without insurance. Look at the bill, and you’ll be surprised to notice that Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who got a zero rating from the AFL-CIO in 1993 and 1994, is a sponsor. Meanwhile, as Republicans continue to talk about revenging themselves upon labor, and as the media continues to report on the trouble labor has gotten itself into, union members will become more, not less, supportive of labor’s efforts to counter the GOP. John Sweeney won’t tell you this, but it’s true.

Republican rhetoric both misses the point and strengthens the AFL-CIO’s position. If labor makes Republicans worried, it must have spent its money wisely. The Republicans would like to dismiss labor’s role in the election, to have us believe that all the AFL-CIO netted was the scalps of 19 Republicans who might well have lost anyway. But then, they won’t let it drop. Thirty-five million dollars, by itself, could never purchase as much free media time as labor has gotten. The AFL-CIO will tell you that its campaign was a success—and likely would have no matter what the outcome—but it was neither a success nor a failure, for any of the reasons offered by both sides in Congress and in the media. It wasn’t necessarily even smart politics when you look strictly at the 1996 election results. It was, and continues to be, successful as an advertising blitz, an effort to bolster name recognition and product loyalty. If nothing else, labor demonstrated in 1996 that it has a dependable enemy.