Labor Watch

Big Labor and the Democracy Alliance: Funding Union Priorities


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

 

Funding Union Priorities

The Democracy Alliance functions largely to channel contributions pledged by its well-heeled partners to left-of-center organizations that the alliance has recommended. It has been characterized as “a kind of progressive investment marketplace.”[1] In addition to yearly dues, individual partners are reportedly expected to commit at least $200,000 per year to such groups, while institutional partners (like unions) are required to commit at least $1 million.[2] According to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon in 2019, partners have collectively steered as much as $1.83 billion into liberal causes since the alliance’s founding in 2005.[3]

The opportunity for union-backed activist groups to gain access to serious left-of-center capital has been given as a primary motivator behind labor’s involvement with the Democracy Alliance. Materials reviewed by Politico in 2015 reportedly demonstrated how “labor leaders have invested considerable time and union cash to secure preferential treatment from the preeminent club of major liberal funders, the Democracy Alliance.” They also evidenced “labor’s efforts to identify rich donors who could pump money into union-linked nonprofits.”[4]

A perusal of the portfolio of organizations recommended by the Democracy Alliance provides some clear examples. As of September 2021, the alliance’s website listed 30 recommended groups that it considered to be “high-impact, progressive organizations that generate bold policy ideas, drive progressive messages, organize key constituencies, and support the next generation of leaders.”[5] While most of these organizations are tied to the labor movement in some manner, a few are particularly closely linked:

  • America Votes is a liberal advocacy and voter mobilization coalition that has received substantial labor funding and counts major unions like the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, the AFT, the NEA, the SEIU, and the CWA among its national coalition partners.[6] Andy Stern was among the group’s co-founders.[7]
  • Americans for Financial Reform is an activist group focused on strengthening regulation of the financial sector, and a number of unions are among its more than 200 state and national coalition members.[8] The group’s founding director, Heather Booth, served as the AFL-CIO’s health care campaign director in 2008.[9]
  • Catalist is a data firm that “works exclusively with Democratic and progressive organizations that share our values.” Selected clients include AFSCME, the SEIU, the UFCW, and the AFL-CIO.[10] Michael Podhorzer, who is assistant to the president for strategic research at the AFL-CIO, has served as one of Catalist’s co-chairs.[11] Its current board chair is former Democracy Alliance vice-chair Patricia Bauman.[12]
  • Economic Policy Institute is a union-aligned think tank that has sent several high-profile alumni into the Biden Administration, including two of the three members of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors.[13] Nearly one-third of the members of the group’s board of directors are the sitting presidents of some of the largest unions in the country.[14] In 2020, about 17 percent of the Economic Policy Institute’s total funding came from labor unions.[15]
  • National Employment Law Project is a think tank and advocacy group that receives funding from and works closely with organized labor. As of 2021, two-thirds of the members of its board of directors are current or former union staff.[16]
  • Working America is the “community affiliate” of the AFL-CIO, which provided Working America with over $7 million in its fiscal year 2019.[17] Working America’s founding director Karen Nussbaum was formerly the president of District 925 SEIU as well as special assistant to the AFL-CIO’s former president John Sweeney.[18]
  • Working Families Party is a left-wing political party based in New York. Traditionally it has been closely tied to organized labor, with unions having provided the party with substantial funding in the past. However, a prominent dispute over whom to endorse in New York’s 2018 gubernatorial election led some unions to withdraw from the party.[19]

It’s not possible to know exactly how much revenue these groups derive each year by virtue of their status as Alliance-recommended organizations. The Democracy Alliance is structured as a “taxable nonprofit” and thus does not file yearly disclosures with the IRS.[20] Even if it did, those disclosures would likely not be particularly informative because partners mostly contribute to recommended organizations directly, rather than through the Democracy Alliance itself.[21] Still, it’s safe to say that Big Labor’s ideological and policy priorities are well served and well funded through the alliance’s efforts.

 

In the next installment, the leadership of the Democracy Alliance includes many current or former union personnel.

Notes

[1] Hertel-Fernandez et at., “When Political Mega-Donors Join Forces,” 16.

[2] Hertel-Fernandez et at., “When Political Mega-Donors Join Forces,” 3 and 18.

[3] Joe Schoffstall, “Confidential Memo: Secretive Liberal Donor Club Plots $275 Million Spending Plan for 2020,” Washington Free Beacon, April 11, 2019, https://freebeacon.com/politics/confidential-memo-secretive-liberal-donor-club-plots-275-million-for-2020/.

[4] Vogel and Mahoney, “Big Labor Targets Steyer, Soros in Massive 2016 Fundraising Effort.”

[5] Democracy Alliance, “Recommended Organizations,” accessed September 7, 2021, https://democracyalliance.org/investments/.

[6] America Votes, “Our Partners,” accessed September 7, 2021, https://americavotes.org/our-partners/.

[7] Beth Lester, “Democrats Show Rare Unity,” CBS News, May 28, 2004, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/democrats-show-rare-unity/.

[8] Americans for Financial Reform, “Coalition Members,” accessed September 7, 2021, https://ourfinancialsecurity.org/about/coalition-members/.

[9] Democracy Partners, “Heather Booth,” accessed September 7, 2021, https://www.democracypartners.com/partners/heather-booth-0.

[10] Catalist, “Clients & Partners,” accessed September 7, 2021, https://catalist.us/clients-partners/.

[11] AFL-CIO, “Michael Podhorzer,” Accessed September 7, 2021, https://aflcio.org/author/michael-podhorzer.

[12] Democracy Alliance, “Patricia Bauman,” April 30, 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170430015029/http://democracyalliance.org/people/patricia-bauman.

[13] Robert Stilson,“Nonprofits in the Biden Administration: Think Tanks,” Capital Research Center, June 23, 2021, https://capitalresearch.org/article/nonprofits-in-the-biden-administration-think-tanks/.

[14] Economic Policy Institute, “Board of Directors,” accessed September 7, 2021, https://www.epi.org/about/board/.

[15] Economic Policy Institute, “Funder Acknowledgments and Disclosure Principles,” accessed September 7, 2021, https://www.epi.org/about/funder-acknowledgments-and-disclosure-principles/.

[16] National Employment Law Project, “Board of Directors,” accessed September 7, 2021, https://www.nelp.org/about-us/board-of-directors/.

[17] American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (Form 990), Schedule I, 2019.

[18] Working America, “Karen Nussbaum,” accessed September 7, 2021, https://www.workingamerica.org/staff/karen-nussbaum.

[19] Rebecca C. Lewis, “Which Unions Are In and Out of the WFP?,” City & State New York, April 16, 2018, https://www.cityandstateny.com/politics/2018/04/which-unions-are-in-and-out-of-the-wfp/178562/.

[20] Scott Walter, “The State of the Left: Bucking the Party System,” Capital Research Center, April 12, 2019, https://capitalresearch.org/article/the-state-of-the-left-part-2/.

[21] Hertel-Fernandez et at., “When Political Mega-Donors Join Forces,” 16 and 37.

 

 

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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