From hot dogs to slick ads: Unions spent $4.4 billion on politics in past 6 years

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
The Ticket

A Wall Street Journal analysis of political spending unveiled Tuesday found that organized labor groups dropped a combined $4.4 billion on political activities between 2006 and 2011, about four times more than previously estimated.

The Journal cast a wide net to determine what counted as "political spending," including activities that range from traditional candidate donations to the cost of hot dogs for union demonstrators at political rallies.

To find the additional costs, the newspaper added spending reports filed with the Labor Department to Federal Election Commission spending data. From the report, which is partially behind a paywall at, but is available in full at

The usual measure of unions' clout encompasses chiefly what they spend supporting federal candidates through their political-action committees, which are funded with voluntary contributions, and lobbying Washington, which is a cost borne by the unions' own coffers.

These kinds of spending, which unions report to the Federal Election Commission and to Congress, totaled $1.1 billion from 2005 through 2011, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The unions' reports to the Labor Department capture an additional $3.3 billion that unions spent over the same period on political activity.

The costs reported to the Labor Department range from polling fees, to money spent persuading union members to vote a certain way, to bratwursts to feed Wisconsin workers protesting at the state capitol last year. Much of this kind of spending comes not from members' contributions to a PAC but directly from unions' dues-funded coffers. There is no requirement that unions report all of this kind of spending to the Federal Election Commission, or FEC.

Union spending goes overwhelmingly to Democratic candidates and liberal causes. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending, 92 percent of the $58.5 million in direct candidate donations from 1990 to 2012 went toward Democratic candidates.

Update: Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, responded to the Journal report Tuesday afternoon, arguing that much of the union political activity on the local and state level cannot be equally compared to spending by super PACs:

The Wall Street Journal treats all advocacy for working people at the local, state and federal levels as "political" work. Everything from someone writing policy proposals to create jobs to working in a local community to elect a working families-friendly City Council is viewed as equivalent to corporations anonymously attacking President Obama.

Providing expert input for the formulation of mine safety rules, assisting the civil rights community—be it the 1963 March on Washington or voting protection efforts year-round—everything labor works on is said to be a counter-weight to the Super PACs of Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers and more shadowy figures.

By this definition, the entire budget of the Chamber of Commerce would be considered political, but the Chamber doesn't report its spending on Department of Labor forms or anywhere else.

The Journal misses the central point that unions are advocacy organizations. The job of a union is to advocate on behalf of working men and women.

Moreover, the Journal ignores the fact that corporations outspend unions by more than 10 to one but are free to hide their spending while unions disclose everything.