Andrea_44 from Leamington, Ontario , Canada [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

April 29, 2019; New York Times

When it comes to issues of campaign finance reform, most will expect liberal-leaning groups to favor reform. But that premise ran into a brick wall this week in the state of New York—a wall called “organized unions”—and it might do so elsewhere.

A New York legislative proposal includes in its text some modifications to the public financing of campaigns, and it looked to have the kind of widespread Democratic support that ensure passage. However, the bill was stopped before it was introduced by a short statement from Mario Cilento, the president of New York’s AFL-CIO, saying, “Now is not the time.” As Vivian Wang and J. David Goodman write for the New York Times,

The last-minute opposition helped derail a push to introduce a small-donor matching system to state candidates; lawmakers ultimately agreed to allow a nine-member commission to decide later on a framework for public financing.

It also shocked some progressive activists and Democratic elected officials, many of whom have deeply forged alliances with big labor. But while unions are typically among the staunchest of Democratic allies, they also happen to be some of the biggest money players in New York politics.

The political power of unions in New York is clear. The money and contributions they bring to political campaigns at every level—local, state and national—should not be underestimated, even as their membership shrinks. In 2014, 14 of the 25 largest campaign donors were unions. But the times are changing:

The labor sector has experienced decreasing political power in recent years. The past generation has been marked by a changing economy, a pattern of deregulation and decreasing union membership. In 2017, only 10.7 percent of workers belonged to unions compared to 20.1 percent in 1983.

Total labor sector campaign contributions…peaked during the 2016 election cycle, when groups and individuals poured more than $217 million into races nationwide. Almost 90 percent of those contributions went to Democrats, which is consistent with at least two decades of labor contribution trends.

So, what does this mean for New York, a stronghold for both labor unions and Democrats? Clearly, the unions hold enough clout to delay action on a bill that might lessen their influence. However, there’s no unanimity among the state’s various unions around public funding for campaigns. Both the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and the New York City District Council of Carpenters indicated in statements they didn’t support public financing for political campaigns. But the union representing janitors, doormen, and airport workers, as well as the New York arm of the Communication Workers of America, backs the effort fully.

What’s at stake? For one thing, there is a cost in losing the political clout for unions that comes with campaign contributions. On the other hand, there is the cost, and it is not small, of financing public support for political campaigns, estimated at $100 million for the state of New York. Then, there’s the question of just who these union donors represent. Are they corporations and representatives of big business? Or do they stand in for individual dues-paying union members and act more like constituents? For the politician who receives the campaign donation, will this make a difference in their vote on campaign finance reform?

The can has been kicked down the road for now, but it is sure to come back. And that might be a risky thing for both politicians and unions. As the words of the Woody Guthrie song say, “Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking with the union.” We will see if this still holds true.—Carole Levine