Labor Watch

Big Labor and the Democracy Alliance: Beginnings


Big Labor and the Democracy Alliance (full series)
Unions and the Democracy Alliance’s Beginnings
Funding Union Priorities | Union Personnel in the Democracy Alliance

 

Summary: For years the Democracy Alliance has embodied big money on the American Left. The alliance is as notable for the tremendous depth of its partners’ pockets and for the relative secrecy of its operations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the partisan proclivities of organized labor in the United States, unions have occupied a central place in the Democracy Alliance from the very beginning.

 

Few groups exemplify politically active money on the American left quite like the Democracy Alliance. The self-described “preeminent network of donors dedicated to building the progressive movement in the United States”[1] has been called “[t]he country’s most powerful liberal donor club.”[2]

The alliance, which channels vast sums of money into left-of-center causes every year, is as notable for the tremendous depth of its members’ (known as “partners”) pockets as for the relative secrecy of its operations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the partisan proclivities of organized labor in the United States, unions have occupied a central place in the Democracy Alliance from the very beginning.

Unions and the Democracy Alliance’s Beginnings

The origins of the Democracy Alliance can be traced to the aftermath of Democratic Party losses in the 2004 U.S. general election, especially the reelection of President George W. Bush.[3] The results frustrated much of the ultra-wealthy liberal donor class, who had spent serious money on defeating the president. According to journalist Matt Bai’s 2007 book The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, “In all of American history, no small group of partisans had ever invested so much money to win a single campaign.”[4]

In the weeks following Bush’s reelection, renewed focus was placed on a fledgling idea inspired in large part by a PowerPoint presentation created by political operative Rob Stein the previous year. The presentation detailed Stein’s research on how a relatively small number of right-of-center funders had effectively created the long-term “infrastructure” underlying modern conservatism, largely through funding ideologically aligned think tanks and advocacy groups.[5]

Some major funders on the left began to see the need for something similar and officially came together in 2005 to create the Democracy Alliance. Much of the network’s initial gravity centered on billionaires like George Soros and Peter Lewis, whose families would contribute roughly a third of the initial $39 million invested in the alliance. Soros was the single largest early contributor, pledging more than $10 million by the fall of 2005.[6]

The Democracy Alliance’s early years are recounted in considerable detail by Bai in The Argument, and he relates how labor unions quickly became involved. While the AFL-CIO (the largest union federation in the country) was an early alliance partner, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was the nascent network’s first institutional member. It was also one of its biggest early funders. By the end of the alliance’s spring 2006 conference the SEIU had committed more than $5 million and was even housing the alliance’s offices at its headquarters in Washington, DC.[7] Before the year was out, SEIU’s secretary-treasurer Anna Burger was sitting as vice chair of the Democracy Alliance’s board of directors.[8]

The enthusiasm with which the SEIU embraced the alliance almost from its inception was due in large part to the influence of then-SEIU president Andy Stern. Having himself viewed Rob Stein’s PowerPoint presentation, Stern not only brought the union into the alliance as a partner, but personally sought to guide it along a path toward funding “innovative ideas that would change the [Democratic] party.”[9] He was a key opening night panelist at the alliance’s spring 2006 conference in Austin, Texas, where he expounded his views about the future of Democratic politics.[10] Although Stern stepped down from the SEIU presidency in 2010, his successor Mary Kay Henry would ultimately take a seat on the alliance’s board of directors.[11]

Other unions and union officers would follow the AFL-CIO and the SEIU into the Democracy Alliance. According to conference documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon in 2014, then-president of Workers United (a SEIU affiliate) Noel Beasley was listed as a new partner. The prior year saw Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Larry Cohen and senior director George Kohl along with American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten and assistant to the president Michelle Ringuette listed as new partners.[12]

The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have also been identified as Democracy Alliance partners,[13] as has the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).[14] The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) reported a $70,000 contribution to the alliance on its 2019 Form LM-2 filed with the U.S. Department of Labor,[15] which corresponds to the annual dues required of institutional Democracy Alliance partners.[16]

 

In the next installment, the Democracy Alliance funnels money nonprofits tied to the labor movement.

Notes

[1] Democracy Alliance, “About the DA,” accessed September 7, 2021. https://democracyalliance.org/about/.

[2] Maggie Severns, “Liberal Megadonors Plan $100 Million Swing-State Blitz to Beat Trump,” Politico, May 5, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/05/05/liberal-donors-trump-2020-1301639.

[3] Ari Berman, “Big $$ for Progressive Politics,” The Nation, September 28, 2006, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/big-progressive-politics/.

[4] Matt Bai, The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics (New York: Penguin Books. 2007), 9.

[5] Bai, The Argument, 26.

[6] Bai, The Argument, 118.

[7] Bai, The Argument, 195.

[8] Bai, The Argument, 293.

[9] Bai, The Argument, 196.

[10] Bai, The Argument, 197–198.

[11] Democracy Alliance, “Mary Kay Henry,” December 2, 2016, https://web.archive.org/web/20161202020106/http://democracyalliance.org/people/mary-kay-henry/.

[12] Lachlan Markay, “Read the Confidential Document Left Behind at the Democracy Alliance Meeting,” Washington Free Beacon, May 5, 2014, https://freebeacon.com/politics/jonathan-soros-left-a-confidential-document-at-his-donor-conference/.

[13] Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Theda Skocpol, and Jason Sclar, “When Political Mega-Donors Join Forces: How the Koch Network and the Democracy Alliance Influence Organized U.S. Politics on the Right and Left.” Studies in American Political Development 32, no. 2 (October 2018): 18, https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/ahertel/files/when_political_megadonors_join_forces_how_the_koch_network_and_the_democracy_alliance_influence_organized_us_politics_on_the_right_and_left.pdf.

[14] Kenneth P. Vogel and Brian Mahoney. “Big Labor Targets Steyer, Soros in Massive 2016 Fundraising Effort.” Politico. June 26, 2015, https://www.politico.com/story/2015/06/big-labor-donors-george-soros-tom-steyer-119454.

[15] American Federation of Government Employees, Labor Organization Annual Report (Form LM-2), Schedule 16 (Political Activities and Lobbying), 2019.

[16] Ruby Cramer, “Democracy Alliance Raises Member Fees and Retools to Fight Trump,” BuzzFeed News, January 26, 2017, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/rubycramer/democracy-alliance-raises-member-fees-and-retools-to-fight-t.

 

 

 

Robert Stilson

Robert runs several of CRC’s specialized projects. Originally from Indiana, he has a B.A. from Hanover College and a J.D. from University of Richmond School of Law, where he graduated…
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