The Service Employees International Union rarely, if ever, has kept a lid on its political leanings. From 1980 through the mid 1990s under President John Sweeney, and since then under his successor, Andrew Stern, the Washington, D.C.-based union has invested enormous energy into building a progressive-Left political campaign infrastructure. There’s nothing illegal about that. Employers aren’t exactly shy about their own political machinery either. But it’s the law that the SEIU, no more than any other union, may not coerce rank and file into making contributions. And evidence suggests the union, now with some 1.9 million members, may be doing just that. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, for one, is exercised to the point of requesting a federal investigation.
The Service Employees see 2008 as a make-or-break year for America, an opportunity to undo eight years of Republican White House leadership. The union is committed to electing a Democrat as the nation’s next president and giving the Democratic Party an insurmountable advantage in both houses of Congress. The union was early out of the starting gate in its endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., for president in February. Money appears to be no object. The SEIU has announced plans to spend $150 million on the current election cycle. What is raising concerns lately is how the union intends to raise this money. At its recent convention in Puerto Rico, the union adopted an amendment to its constitution (Article XV, Section 18) that would require every local affiliate to contribute an amount equivalent to $6 per member each year to the union’s national political action committee. This amount would be in addition to regular dues payments. Affiliates failing to meet this threshold would have to pay the difference out of their coffers, plus a 50 percent penalty.
The amendment, noted a union representative, merely codifies an informal policy long in place. But its passage may have violated federal law. Union, corporate and other political action committees (PACs) must rely on voluntary contributions, without threats of financial reprisal. Even in non-Right to Work states, where a union may compel dues or agency fee payments from workers as part of continued employment, a union can’t apply such payments toward election campaigns. In response, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, based in Springfield, Va., has written U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, asking him to direct a Justice Department probe into whether the SEIU flouted the Federal Election Campaign Act. “SEIU bosses are making a mockery of federal law,” said foundation President Mark Mix. “It’s vital the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor take action now before the damage is done.”
The union has assembled an impressive war chest. SEIU COPE is listed by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as the nation’s leading labor PAC, with over $23 million in receipts for the 2005-06 election cycle. In addition, President Andrew Stern was a co-founder of the George Soros-bankrolled “527” group (i.e., exempt from individual donor limits), America Coming Together (ACT). Along with Soros, the union has been a major contributor to ACT, raising about $26 million for Senator John Kerry’s presidential run in 2004. The group hasn’t always walked a straight and narrow line; the FEC imposed a $775,000 fine on ACT for violating campaign finance laws during that campaign, the largest penalty ever imposed upon a group of its kind. Barack Obama now sits on $340 million in campaign contributions, a good portion of which has come from the SEIU. No doubt many of its members need little coaxing to lend their support. But other members, regardless of party affiliation, might object to being conscripted. The decision to donate funds to a particular candidate would appear to be a matter of personal choice, a conclusion one hopes federal prosecutors will reach as well. (National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, 7/17/08; Wall Street Journal, 7/28/08; New York Times, 8/5/08).