AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks during a luncheon at the National Press Club Friday, May 20, 2011 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is pulling no punches when it comes to the US Supreme Court’s recent pattern of decisions regarding the way in which corporations can engage in politics versus the way in which unions can engage.
“[This] Supreme Court says you cannot do anything to hamper the First Amendment rights of corporations,” argues Trumka. “But when it comes to workers, they haven’t seen a detriment to the First Amendment that they haven’t liked yet.”
Trumka has been increasingly critical of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling in recent months, arguing: “Citizen United has ushered in a new era of elections and it’s not a pretty picture.”
But now he has even more reason to be concerned. And, hopefully, to swing the labor movement toward even more aggressive support of fundamental reforms in how election campaigns are financed—up to and including a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
Traditionally, major corporations and major unions have both tended to seek maximum flexibility when it comes to political spending. And much of the media has covered corporations and unions as equal players. That was never really the case. Corporations, freed by the Court to spend freely from their treasuries on political campaigns, will invariably have more money at their disposal than unions. And the Court’s determination to extend Citizens United, as evidenced Monday by its rejection of Montana’s century-old anti-corruption law, which baned restricted corporate influence in state and local elections sets up even more brutal battles in regions where unions will have a very tough time even competing with corporate cash.
But that’s not the worst if it. The Court is not satisfied just to empower corporations. Now, the Court is making it a good deal harder for unions to work on political issues with the people they represent—especially non-members in organized workplaces—and to support candidates and mount campaigns.
With last week’s ruling in the case of Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000, the High Court’s hyper-partisan, hyper-activist majority—Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito—did several things that constrain the flexibility of unions in election fights. Indeed, the ruling was so sweeping in its advocacy, so adventurous in its politics, that Justice Sonia Sotomayor (joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg) concurred with the narrow judgement but objected: “I cannot agree with the majority’s decision to address unnecessarily significant constitutional issues well outside the scope of the questions presented and briefing. By doing so, the majority breaks our own rules and, more importantly, disregards principles of judicial restraint that define the Court’s proper role in our system of separated powers.”