Union members can't strike if congressional lawmakers ignore their health care requests, but they've threatened to walk away from the bargaining table if Congress begins taxing employer health benefits.
So far some prominent lawmakers in the federal health care debate, including Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), have said such a move may be the only way to pay for the potentially $1 trillion price tag associated with reforming the nation's health system. But how far the interest groups and legislators will go is uncertain. While Democrats risk losing some of their most strident supporters, unions don't want to risk ostracizing lawmakers they need to back some of their other major legislative priorities, namely the Employee Free Choice Act.
Over the years, labor hasn't wavered in its financial support for Democrats, giving no more than 13 percent of its total contributions to Republican candidates and party committees in any election cycle. In the 2008 cycle, unions gave 92 percent of a total $74.5 million to Democrats and spent another $80 million on independent broadcast advertising, mail and internal advocacy to help elect Democrats or defeat Republicans.
Contributions from Labor PACs
While on the campaign trail, President Barack Obama said he would oppose taxing employer health benefits. But he has since said he's open to changing his mind. Unions contributed $513,700 to Obama in 2008 and the Service Employees International Union alone logged more than $30 million in independent expenditures in his support.
The crux of the health care debate is how to pay for expanded health insurance offerings, and union members say they don't want it to be at their expense. Taxes "shouldn't be taken from the backs of workers who have bargained away wages and other things for their benefits over the years," Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the SEIU told Bloomberg, summarizing the industry's stance. The SEIU spent $712,600 on lobbying in the first three months of this year.
Although Baucus has recently said that perks secured in existing collective-bargaining agreements should be exempt from such levies, unions such as the Laborers Union oppose the tax under all circumstances. The Laborers Union has spent $255,300 lobbying through March of this year.
Lobbying by Labor PACs
Unions have joined forces to fight off this measure. The National Education Association, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (more commonly known as the AFSCME) and the United Food and Commercial Workers targeted Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in ads last month because he supports eliminating the tax exclusion, according to The Hill. The AFL-CIO is also outspoken on the issue. Together, unions spent $10.2 million on lobbying efforts in the first three months of 2009.
It's not all about opposition, of course.
Labor groups are pushing for a public health insurance option that again pits them against their usual adversary, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spends more money on lobbying each year than any other group. The SEIU gained leverage last week, however, in partnering with unlikely big business ally Wal-Mart in supporting the public plan. Unions are also bankrolling advocacy group Health Care for America Now, a national network that unites doctors' associations, consumer groups and other activists. HCAN, which is considered a prominent champion of the public insurance option, spent $80,000 on lobbying last year and says it will spend $11 million on TV ads.
Download a list of contributions from labor PACs to all current members of Congress (including to their candidate committees and leadership PACs) since 1989 here: