Labor Watch

Trump-Supporting Steamfitters Show the Union-Member Divide

While in New York to deal with some legal issues, former President Donald Trump met with some construction workers at a site near the courthouse. Among them was Bob Bartels, a business manager with Steamfitters Local 638, a division of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipe-Fitters (UA). Bartels told Fox News:

I put out a poll in my union—[former] President Trump is leading [incumbent President] Joe Biden 3 to 1 on my presidential poll out of my 9,000 members right now. We are very tired of the situation with groceries, inflation, gas prices, illegal immigration, and crime. We’re living it every day in New York City.

Assume for the moment that Bartels is telling the truth and not just what a journalist for the right-leaning network wants to hear. He is perhaps unwittingly revealing a fundamental tension in contemporary labor unionism and the need for the Taft-Hartley Consensus. Because if he’s right, the majority of his members who support former President Trump are funding President Biden’s re-election campaign efforts.

Wait, How?

Now for a digression into how union finances work. (Stick with me here, it’s important.) First, let one consider unions’ direct contributions to candidates (and an unclear amount of their direct expenditures on behalf of candidates). Contrary to the apparent belief of the progressive-funded geniuses at American Compass, unions’ dues-funded treasuries are prohibited by law from directly contributing federal candidates. Unions therefore take up separate fundraising efforts for these purposes, and the funds collected must be segregated into “separate segregated funds” for distribution to unions’ endorsed candidates, who are overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic. Independent expenditures from dues-funded treasuries are considered a First Amendment right to unions and other corporate organizations, though some unions elect to use separate funds for these expenditures too.

But that is not all the political activism in which organized labor engages. Unions make extensive contributions to 501(c)(3) charitable-educational policy organizations and 501(c)(4) lobbying and advocacy organizations, and they retain liberal-Democratic political consultants for various advocacy and organizing efforts. This constructs the broader Everything Leftist institutional architecture, keeping the consultants’ staffs employed outside election season and paying the salaries of often radical Everything Leftist activists on the professional left.

Paying Up the Pyramid

On unions’ annual reports filed under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, unions disclose their expenditures on lobbying and politics on Schedule 16 and their contributions and gifts to outside groups on Schedule 17. (Sometimes, they will make expenditures to leftist groups and classify them as organizing or contract expenditures on Schedule 15, but we can lay that aside for now.) Steamfitters 638 reported no outside expenditures exceeding $5,000 (the reporting threshold) on Schedule 16 of its most recent report, and none of its Schedule 17 recipients are particularly political. So Bartels’ members are safe from funding the infrastructure supporting a candidate they oppose, right?

Wrong. Because Steamfitters 638 is part of (at least) two larger institutions that do make extensive use of Schedules 16 and 17 for the benefit of the liberal movement and President Biden’s Democratic Party. Local unions of the United Association must pay a “per capita tax”—a flat fee per member—to the national headquarters of the UA, and the UA in turn pays a per capita tax to the national AFL-CIO. (Depending on the union, there may also be per capita tax payments to state or regional bodies, trade or industry-focused groups, and other coordinating committees.)

And those institutions do spend on politics, and no points for guessing what sort of politics those are. The United Association reported paying $1 million each to the Democrats’ Congressional Super PACs, the Senate Majority PAC, and House Majority PAC, in its 2022–2023 fiscal year. It gave $100,000 to the BlueGreen Alliance, an advocacy group coordinating efforts between environmentalists and labor unions. It even provided $250,000 to the Save America Fund, a Super PAC that spent in support of Democratic candidate Tim Ryan and against the generally uncomfortably pro-union Republican candidate J.D. Vance in the 2022 Senate election in Ohio, yet more evidence that partisanship, not policy, drives labor union political interventions.

As for the AFL-CIO federation, that institution is full-on Everything Leftist. Liz Shuler, who assumed the federation’s presidency on the death of Richard Trumka, came out in favor of transgender activist walkouts at Netflix targeting (likely SAG-AFTRA, AFL-CIO member) Dave Chappelle. And from among its political and lobbying expenditures from 2022–2023, one might take note of contributions of $190,935 to the controversial left-of-center voter activation group Voter Participation Center, $109,066 to VPC’s sister group Center for Voter Information, $20,000 to the left-wing Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, $70,980 to its Pride At Work LGBT constituency group for legislative advocacy, and $32,000 to Tides Advocacy for polling on the AFL-CIO’s legislative omnibus of bad proposals, the PRO Act. The union also reported a $70,000 expenditure to the Democracy Alliance, which is consistent with the amount reported to be organizational annual dues to the Democratic megadonors’ collective.

To the Taft-Hartley Consensus

So, back to the Trump-supporting Steamfitters. Whether they like it or not—because their union is a member of a federation controlled by government-worker union interests, operated by Everything Leftism-influenced professional-managerial cadres, and committed to its position within the leftist coalition—their real American dollars are supporting the reelection of President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress. Big Labor does not particularly care about this injustice. More member dues channeled for politics from unwilling members means more power for Big Labor, so those Trumpy Steamfitters should do their job and get in rank and file like good collectivists.

But the conservative Taft-Hartley Consensus has two potential offerings for these workers. First, there is the classical right-to-work law, which would allow any of these Steamfitters who see their national union’s support for President Biden and broader liberalism as inexcusable to quit the union and stop paying dues without penalty. New York state permits forced dues, and the construction industry in general is weird in its labor relations relative to traditional private-sector businesses, but let one assume regular private-sector practice applies here for sake of argument.

But there is a less drastic alternative also on the table. The Employee Rights Act would permit those Trumpy Steamfitters who wish to remain union members for whatever reason (in the construction industry, these reasons might include the ability to work on government projects restricted de facto to unionized contracting firms) to refrain from paying for the lobbying and political activities, including those funded with member dues.

Whichever way conservative policymakers might wish to go, the saga of the Steamfitters for Trump is a reminder of the consequences of Big Labor’s forced-dues regime. Working-class conservatives do not need a Big Labor that has been empowered by misguided policies, but rather should have the ability to express themselves politically in a voluntary and individual manner not dictated by collectivist leadership in Washington, DC.

Michael Watson

Michael is Research Director for Capital Research Center and serves as the managing editor for InfluenceWatch. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he previously worked for a…
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