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Labor Sector Maintains Political Clout as 2020 Presidential Campaign Heats Up

But labor leaders are still treading into 2020 with caution.

Union activists and supporters rally at Foley Square in Lower Manhattan against the Supreme Court's ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case on June 27, 2018, in New York City.

Following the 2016 presidential election, unions witnessed a barrage of attacks on the labor sector. Most notably, the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME gave public workers the choice to opt out of unions and not pay membership dues. Many labor organizers predicted the adoption of such “right-to-work” laws would be a death call for unions, which have already seen their share of workers decline over the last 35 years.

The AFSCME and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) did lose a vast majority of agency fee payers, or employees who opted out of union membership and still paid union fees before the SCOTUS ruling, according to analysis by Bloomberg Law. Overall, union membership stayed steady and financial consequences have yet to be seen. Despite recent blows, unions have dug in and continue to wield financial influence. On the political front, contributions from labor groups continue to play a significant role in elections.

Contributions to federal candidates, parties and committees from the labor sector hit a record high in 2016 to the tune of $218 million. Since 1990, the total amount of contributions from labor increased by more than 300 percent.

Last year, the Carpenters & Joiners Union came out on top giving over $20 million. The National Education Association followed closely with $18 million. Since super PACs can accept unlimited union contributions post-Citizens United, money to these outside groups ballooned after 2010.

About 90 percent of contributions from labor go to Democrats’ coffers. So it’s no surprise that the party’s crowded field of presidential hopefuls has hustled to win prized union endorsements — a ticket to millions of engaged voters and unions’ deep pockets.

But labor leaders are also treading into 2020 with caution.

Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others have promised to reel in big corporations, pass universal healthcare and institute a living wage for workers. But these candidates have yet to capture clear endorsements from unions in their presidential campaign. The uncertainty that comes with such a packed campaign arena could also explain why unions haven’t made their presidential bets public.

Contributions from labor PACs made during the last election cycle could provide a glimpse of who might win over the support of labor, if they get to the primaries. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) received about $230,000 from labor PACs in his last run for House, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) raked in over $220,000.

Proceeding Into 2020 With Caution

Union presidents’ apparent aversion to early endorsements falls in stark contrast to their behavior before the last presidential election. Leading up to the 2016 elections, many unions threw endorsements in rapid fire at Hillary Clinton, to the dismay of some members. By late 2015, Clinton had about a dozen endorsements from unions while Sanders only had two.

When SEIU endorsed Clinton in 2015, its decision backfired as workers of the New Hampshire union chapter rose up in protest, voicing their unwavering support for her opponent instead. For their part, SEIU and the Communications Workers held town hall-style events to provide workers with the opportunity to ask candidates questions. The American Federation of Teachers expressed its intention to solicit more input from members before making endorsements this time around too.

For some unions, the endorsement process will be more straightforward. The International Association of Fire Fighters has already signaled support for former Vice President Joe Biden, if he decides to run for president.

GOP Groups See Some Support From Labor

As labor groups court various Democratic candidates, they also continue to invest in moderate Republicans. Donations from labor groups to Republicans hit a new record high, with 14 percent of total contributions from labor groups going to Republicans in 2018. That’s double the money funneled to Republicans since 2010.

Historically, an overwhelming margin of these contributions goes toward Democratic politicians or liberal outside groups. But occasionally, moderate Republicans or conservative legislators sitting on influential committees might receive a financial nudge from labor. The National Air Traffic Controllers and the Airline Pilots Association PACs each devoted one-third of their contributions to Republicans last year.

Unions also recently contributed to GOP super PACs like the Congressional Leadership Fund and Defending Main Street, created by former Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) who often railed against the Tea Party.

Defending Main Street dedicated $2.5 million in individual expenditures to Republicans last year and didn’t spend a dime on Democratic candidates. But a closer look at the Republican lineup backed by this super PAC tells a different story. Most of the politicians receiving contributions from labor fall center-right, or take more moderate stances on labor than their far-right colleagues. LiUNA Building America, the liberal PAC supporting working people, gave $1.25 million to Defending Main Street.

The labor sector continues to invest in lobbying efforts with lobbying spending remaining steady. Unions have been lobbying for traditional labor-related causes including improving job security, wages and work conditions, in addition to more unexpected battles like maintaining temporary protection status for immigrants or tightening gun control measures.

As deregulation and corporate consolidation continue to haunts the future of over 14 million unionized workers, there’s no shortage of pro-labor causes at stake as 2020 approaches. Presidential candidates will likely need to throw their weight into worker-centered platforms to prove they’re worthy of union support.

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