How screwy is the campaign finance landscape in the wake of Citizens United and other rulings in the past decade chipping away at limits on political contributions? So screwy that Republican appointees on the Federal Election Commission are siding with union chiefs against employees. For years, Republicans have framed their anti-union stance as a pro-worker position—by pushing “right-to-work” laws and other anti-union measures, they are simply standing up for the rights of workers to be able to decide for themselves whether or not they want to be part of a union. (Thus anti-union outfits have names such as “Alliance for Worker Freedom” and “Coalition for a Democratic Workplace.”*)
Ah, but it’s different in the funhouse mirror that is the campaign finance world. In a little-noticed ruling last week (hat tip to Think Progress for flagging it), the three Republican commissioners on the FEC found that it was acceptable for a union in Hawaii to force its employees* to campaign on behalf of Colleen Hanabusa, a Democratic candidate in the special congressional election in Hawaii in May 2010. Two former employees of United Public Workers had filed a complaint stating they had lost their jobs when they refused to hold signs and canvass on behalf of Hanabusa. This might seem like just the sort of thing that Republicans would seize on as proof of union bosses wielding undue power over their minions—but no. The Democratic appointees on the FEC found the coercion illegal, but the Republican appointees did not—instead, they cited the 2010 Citizens United ruling as permitting the union’s compulsion. The only thing the commission as a whole could agree on was that the union should have reported the campaign work being done by its employees as an “independent expenditure” on behalf of Hanabusa’s candidacy.
What gives? Well, it all has to do with the conservative movement’s relentless and quite successful effort to dismantle restrictions on campaign giving and spending. The Citizens United decision was a big step forward in this effort because it decreed that corporations and unions could spend as much as they pleased on behalf of favored candidates—no, not give directly to their campaigns, but spend on ads or canvassing or anything else on their behalf, as we’re seeing with the SuperPACs in the 2012 campaign. And it is in the interest of this movement to define as broadly as possible these “independent expenditures” allowed by Citizens United—so much so that in this case, it meant siding with the union chiefs. Because if the union in this instance is allowed to compel its employees to campaign on behalf of a favored candidate, that means that a corporation is allowed to do so, too. And just as the lifting of spending restrictions ends up meaning much more for corporations than for unions—since corporations have a lot more money to spend—any lifting of restrictions on compelled political activity would mean more for corporations as well, since there are a lot more people working at big companies than in the shrinking ranks of unionized workers.
It’s worth noting that the ruling in the Hawaii case left one line in the sand, at least for now— the prohibition on corporations and unions forcing employees to make personal contributions to favored candidates and then reimbursing them for it later (a transgression that I seem to have stumbled across in the Senate race in Ohio.) It’s also worth noting that the Republican commissioners’ approval of compelled campaign work is not actually the law of the land yet, since the commission deadlocked on that question. But don’t be surprised if this question arises again soon. And if you’re confused about why Republicans are pleading the case of union bosses, you’ll know why.
*Corrected at 7:40 p.m. Post initially included the name of a pro-union organization here.
*Another correction: I initially referred to the two complainants as union "members." More accurately, they were actual staff employees of the union, which buttressed the FEC Republicans' case that it was okay for their employer to force them to campaign for the favored candidate, and which drew a stronger parallel to the right of corporations to do the same with their own employees.
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