Unions wait to see Citizens United ‘fix’

America’s largest labor unions are not prepared yet to support legislation restricting corporate spending on political campaigns.

Officials with both the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) said their unions have not decided yet on whether to support the legislative response to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Citizens United case. Final legislative language, being worked on by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), is likely to be released this week.

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“We aren't ready to take a position just yet off of the bill summary and are going to wait until it's introduced and we have the actual legislative language. Once that happens we will be putting out a statement on it,” said Eddie Vale, an AFL-CIO spokesman.

“We are not making a decision about the bill until we see final legislative language. While there are portions of the bill we support, there are other parts that do not go far enough,” said a SEIU spokesman.

In a legislative summary of the bill obtained by The Hill, unions would be required to disclose more of their political spending alongside corporations. The Supreme Court ruling removed restrictions not just for corporations but also for unions, freeing them both to spend unlimited funds on election activities in expressly advocating for or against a candidate’s election.

Richard L. Hasen, an election law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, Calif., said he was not surprised by the unions’ muted response to the bill. He said the labor movement has long been skittish of advocating for campaign finance reform because it could limit their political power along with industry groups.

“The unions have long had an ambivalence if not opposition to campaign finance reform legislation,” Hasen said. “They see this history of parity and are worried about whatever applies to corporations will apply to them.”

It is probable that most trade groups will oppose the bill. On Friday, the country’s largest business association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, blasted the legislative summary for the bill.

At times, unions have been in favor of removing campaign spending restrictions as well. For example, the AFL-CIO filed an amicus brief in the Citizens United case calling for some loosening of limits in campaign finance law.

Nevertheless, in a statement after the Supreme Court’s decision in January, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the court went too far in its ruling.

“We believe the Court wrongly treated corporate expenditures the same as union expenditures, contrary to the arguments we made in our brief in this case,” Trumka said in a statement. “Unions, unlike businesses, are democratically-controlled, non-profit membership organizations representing working men and women across the country, and their independent speech should accordingly be given greater protection.”

SEIU also lambasted the court decision then, saying it gave too much weight to corporate speech in elections. But it seems the labor group wants a more strident bill than the one described in the legislative summary.

SEIU has encouraged members to sign a petition in support of the Fair Elections Now Act, which would provide some public financing for federal candidates’ campaigns. In addition, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger said in testimony provided to Congress that shareholders should have a say in how corporations spend their money.

“Corporations should not be the only ‘people’ to have First Amendment rights. Congress should give shareholders a right to object to the funding of electoral politics through their stock ownership, and give them a refund to account for a corporation's political expenditures made over their objection,” Burger said.

In the legislative summary, corporations would only have to disclose their political spending to shareholders, not seek their approval.

Hasen said some of the biggest campaign spending restrictions outlined in the summary would only affect corporations. For example, large federal contractors, recipients of government bailout funds who have not repaid the money and foreign-owned companies would be banned from election spending.

“There are no foreign-owned unions and unions are not government contractors,” Hasen said. “The biggest limitations in this bill apply only to corporations because there are no parallels in the labor world.”

Hasen said since campaign finance law is so complex, it is too difficult to draw conclusions from the two-page summary without seeing the actual bill. The document seems to have be done “for PR purposes” by focusing on corporations, which poll terribly in the Citizens United debate, Hasen said.

“It is politically popular to beat up on corporations. But I bet when we see the actual bill, I bet it will be pretty even-handed,” Hasen said.