Conservative media's "foreign unions" charge doesn't hold up

Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

In recent days, right-wing media have responded to criticism that conservative political groups have put out millions of dollars worth of GOP attack ads from undisclosed donors, possibly including foreign donors, by deploying a wave of false claims about supposedly equivalent actions taken by progressive groups.

Among the most pernicious (and baseless) is the suggestion that the AFL-CIO, the labor union coalition that generally backs Democratic candidates, is funded from foreign sources.

On the October 10 edition of ABC's This Week, conservative columnist George Will claimed that "the AFL-CIO receives dues from foreign entities associated with it." Likewise, on the October 12 edition of Fox News' America Live, talk radio host Lars Larson charged that "Half of the AFL-CIO is made up of foreign unions":

In both cases, the commentators were arguing that neither the conservative groups nor the AFL-CIO had done anything wrong. But their suggestion about the AFL-CIO's supposed foreign membership appears to be false.

About half of the AFL-CIO's member unions are "international" -- not "foreign" -- unions. What this generally means is that they are U.S.-based unions that also have foreign -- usually Canadian -- members. But according to the AFL-CIO, the Canadian members of the AFL-CIO's member unions are not themselves AFL-CIO union members; the dues the member unions pay to the AFL-CIO are based solely on their American members.

AFL-CIO blogger Mike Hall explains how Canadian members of such unions are not AFL-CIO members in an October 14 post on the AFL-CIO's news blog:

It seems the only basis the Chamber and its conservative and corporate cohorts are using to claim the AFL-CIO is using foreign funds to pay for this fall's political mobilization is because some AFL-CIO unions have members in Canada.

Can't dispute that. There are Canadian UAW members, United Steelworkers (USW), Machinists (IAM), Stage and Theatrical Workers and many others. But they are not AFL-CIO members.

All unions finance the AFL-CIO's operations by paying a monthly fee that is calculated on the number of their American, not Canadian, members. It is generally called a "per capita tax," and derives exclusively from the U.S. members of those unions. To repeat, Canadian union members are not AFL-CIO members.

This information is consistent with the AFL-CIO's August 2007 statement on their "Affiliate Per Capita Taxes," which states that according to the AFL-CIO's bylaws, they receive a "per capita tax" on based on the membership of "all such individuals who are connected with a U.S. affiliate of an AFL-CIO national or international union":

Per capita taxes paid by the national and international unions of the AFL-CIO make up the AFL-CIO's principal income. This system of financing is predicated on principles of democratic participation, fairness, and accuracy: The AFL-CIO Convention establishes the amount of the tax; larger affiliates pay a relatively larger overall share of the tax; and every affiliate obligates itself to report and pay a relatively larger overall share of the tax; and every affiliate obligates itself to report and pay on behalf of all individuals whose dues are subject to the tax.

The AFL-CIO Constitution establishes a specific amount of per capita tax on each affiliate's "full paid-up membership" (Art. VI, Secs. 1 and 2). This membership includes all such individuals who are connected with a U.S. affiliate of an AFL-CIO national or international union. The Constitution also authorizes the Executive Council to prescribe the per capita tax owed by affiliates on their "categories of associate and retired membership," that is, categories of individuals who "are not treated as regular members" of the union because they are not accorded the "full range of international political rights," "pay lesser dues than do individuals in the most comparable regular membership category" and "receive less than the full range of the union's representational services" (Art. VI, Sec. 3).

As The Politico's Ben Smith points out, unions are subject to extremely rigorous disclosure requirements:

While they aren't required by the FEC or IRS to disclose donors, a separate piece of federal law, the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, requires that unions disclose all sources of income that adds up to more than $5,000, a requirement overseen by the Department of Labor. As a result, unions disclose more than many political groups about their internal operations, and certainly more than than do 501(c)(4) nonprofits like Crossroads GPS or 501(c)(6) groups like the Chamber.

So, to review: foreign members? Yes. Foreign unions? Not quite.

Posted In
Economy, Labor Unions, Elections, Campaign Finance
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