After Supreme Court ruling, unions fear opening of corporate cash floodgates

Leaders of the nation’s largest unions came out in unanimous opposition to the recent Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to spend as much as they like to influence the outcome of elections in the United States.

Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said on national television this weekend that the High Court’s ruling means the four biggest banks alone could outspend all unions combined on political ads.

He said that this was particularly dangerous at a time when those same banks are “lobbying fiercely against enactment of laws that would prohibit the behaviors that led to the current Great Recession.” The court ruling would allow banks to purchase and air ads against any lawmaker who votes for new regulations on financial institutions.

“The four biggest banks, if they spent one-tenth of 1 percent of their resources in a political campaign, would eclipse every single penny of union revenue for every union in the country,” Gerard said. “We need to move to public financing of elections, otherwise people will get cynical about their votes and will believe participation doesn’t matter.”

Change to Win Chair Anna Burger was even sharper saying “corporations would drown out everybody else with their money.

“The court lifted the floodgates on corporate electoral activity in the name of free speech rights of corporations,” she declared, “meaning if you are a CEO or corporate official, you are now free to hit the corporate ATM and spend whatever of your shareholders’ money it takes to elect the candidates of your choice.”

Burger said that unlimited corporate spending in federal elections “threatens to drown out voices of the people who should really be at the center of the political process: Voters and candidates.” She noted that corporations “have already been shilling out a lot of cash for political activities via attack ads, direct mail and other forms of communication through political action committees.”

Also joining the outcry against the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling was AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. Trumka’s action came despite the fact that the AFL-CIO was among the groups that had earlier asked the Court to lift a ban on corporate or union-funded independent issue ads within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. Ads included in this category involve the recipient of an automated telephone call, for example, being asked to “call senator so-and-so and tell him to vote against such-and-such.”

A wide variety of organizations had joined together to ask the Court to lift that ban including right wing groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO.

In his attack on the Supreme Court ruling, Trumka said, however, that corporate speech, controlled by company officers, is not the same as speech by unions, which, he said, are democratically controlled by their members.

“The Supreme Court further tilted the playing field in favor of business corporations in public elections,” Trumka declared. “By allowing unlimited corporate treasury expenditures that explicitly support or oppose particular candidates, the court increased the excessive influence corporations already have in our electoral system.”

He said the court “wrongly treated corporate expenditures the same as union expenditures,” contrary to the arguments the labor federation had made in its brief. “Unions, unlike businesses, are democratically-controlled, nonprofit membership organizations representing working men and women across the country, and their independent speech should accordingly be given greater protection.”

Trumka summarized the elements of what, he said, should be included in campaign finance reform. They include “campaign finance regulation that promotes democratic participation in elections, possible public financing of election campaigns, tight regulation of campaign contributions, protection of ‘legitimate independent free speech rights,’ and ‘effective disclosure of who is paying for what.'”

Legal experts are saying that the High Court ruling may, in effect, ban all those elements of campaign finance reform.

The Obama administration is exploring what it can do on a legislative level to correct the problem with the Court ruling. The president made a dramatic display of his opposition to the decision when, looking directly at the members of the Supreme Court who were seated in front of him, he condemned their ruling.  

Photo: Leo Gerard speaking at Employee Free Choice Act event in Texarkana, Tex., July 2009. Allison Curley/



John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.