NEW YORK – Labor leaders voted Wednesday to increase union dues to build the AFL-CIO's campaign war chest by $25 million for November's elections and the next presidential race.
All 66 unions in the federation will be required to pay an increase of 4 cents a month for each of their members through July 2005 to fund political activities. Two unions opposed the hike.
"We recognized that the challenges facing working families have grown bigger and that our responsibility as the only voice for those families has increaseunions already pay to fund advertising, get-out-the-vote efforts and member education. The money does not go to candidates or parties.
Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's political director, said the unions will absorb the increase and probably won't pass it along to members. The AFL-CIO plans to spend about $33 million in this two-year election cycle.
The AFL-CIO, not immune from a weak economy, sought the dues increase after finding it was far short of what it wants to spend on the upcoming elections. Democrats cling to a one-seat majority in the Senate and Republicans have an 11-seat edge in the House. Also, 36 governorships are up for grabs in November.
But the Teamsters and the International Association of Machinists argued that the money ultimately will be spent to help Democrats regardless of their track record on issues important to organized labor.
The Teamsters supported Al Gore over President Bush in 2000. But the union has backed Bush's energy plan and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa was given a seat of honor at the president's State of the Union speech this year.
"What I want is more input into the system, more input into the selection of candidates, more input on how the money is spent," Hoffa said.
International Association of Machinists President Thomas Buffenbarger said the AFL-CIO's political plan is stale and failing. The candidates labor has supported were touted as worker-friendly, he said.
"Well, I have less members today than I did six years, four years and three years ago," Buffenbarger said.
United Steelworkers of America President Leo Gerard also had concerns about labor's political efforts, suggesting the money might better be spent for "an internal fight to save industrial America."
But Gerard ultimately supported the increase after Sweeney announced he was creating a new Industrial Union Council for the AFL-CIO to help develop a political strategy on issues important to workers in the manufacturing and industrial sectors.
In the past, the labor federation asked for voluntary contributions from its member unions, such as $1 per member in 1998 and $2 per member in 2000, which netted $19 million in each cycle.
"But some unions pointed out that we simply can't keep passing the hat to fund a program that is one of the most important activities we undertake," Sweeney said. "Voluntary contributions make it hard for affiliates to plan and budget, and they are less fair because not all unions contribute at the same level."
The $33 million the AFL-CIO has budgeted is about the same that it spent in 1998, the last midterm elections, Rosenthal said. In the 2000 presidential election cycle, the federation spent about $42 million.
The AFL-CIO is on track to spend about a third of its war chest this cycle on advertising and another third on member mobilization and education. The final third will be spent on such things as political research and political training.
Organized labor is still grappling with changes that will be imposed by a new campaign finance law after November's elections, Rosenthal said.
The new law will restrict late-campaign television advertising that does not directly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate. The AFL-CIO filed a lawsuit, challenging that provision as unconstitutional. Other groups also are suing to overturn the new law.