The big union bices -- oops, that's "bosses" -- color another Journal Sentinel campaign finance story | WisCommunity

The big union bices -- oops, that's "bosses" -- color another Journal Sentinel campaign finance story

"The term "outside spending" refers to political expenditures made by groups or individuals independently of, and not coordinated with, candidates' committees. Groups in this category range from conventional party committees to the more controversial super PACs and 501(c) "dark money" organizations." --


If I made a webcam selfie right now, you'd see me still unshaven after reading this morning's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, my hair still uncombed, and my head shaking slowly back and forth, not from caffeine jitters but because I just waded through Daniel Bice's latest "No Quarter" political column, which focuses on third-party campaign spending on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke and Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The only reason I didn't do a coffee spit-take is because I've come to expect this kind of writing from a talented journalist who unfortunately seems to have a fairness blind spot. Here's the headline and the first graf of Bice's coverage on campaign spending in the closing days of a tight race:

HEADLINE: "Union bosses, wealthy donors spend big for Mary Burke, Scott Walker"

FIRST PARAGRAPH: "The race for governor is coming down to a money battle between the union bosses and the deep pockets."

Now, the kindest way to regard that first paragraph is that Bice was trying for something attention-grabbing, as reporters are taught to do. But "union bosses" is a key Republican Party meme and an intentionally negative phrase, reeled off at the top of Bice's column along with the headline over it (Note: reporters do not write the headlines over their articles; editors do). Moreover, it's hard to view "deep pockets" as sufficient counterweight to that negative meme.

Calling a member-elected, public-employee labor union executive a "boss" is rhetoric at best and a sensationalist cheap shot at worst. I'll let you consult the rest of Bice's coverage for yourself at the link below, but suffice to say he didn't and doesn't likewise refer to Republican-friendly business executives or wealthy individuals as "bosses," although their money surely does attempt to boss public opinion, and -- dollar for dollar -- boss it around far more than public unions, whom Walker's Act 10 law has helped to greatly weaken financially.

Here's the thing: Labor unions aren't perfect, but they're much more on the side of the angels than demons. Unions arose in the 20th Century as a response to lousy pay and work conditions, and they spear-headed important worker and civil rights protections in this country. Find me a corporation where rank-and-file employees or even stockholders have any meaningful input into how things are run and who is hired to run them, and at what fabulously out-sized salaries. There are your real "bosses." And many of those bosses, including the ones at Journal Communications Inc., work very hard to marginalize if not eliminate the labor unions representing their employees.  Which is to say, the stool here has more than one leg.

Besides, when an American politican, entire political party, or private interest group comes after you and yours, you have an individual and collective right to speak up and act in your own defense, using every constitutional and other resource at your command. You're not some evil interloper or a "boss" when you do that; rather, you are a patriot and an engaged citizen, participating in democracy by expressing your opinion.

Even the current conservative majority on the US Supreme Court has affirmed your right to do this, even if you're a labor union or a union member. Of course, the court also affirmed the right of slithery, money-laundering right-wing, non-profit "educational institutions" to accept unlimited and anonymous donations from god knows whom. Which is why the true evil is when politicians like Scott Walker attempt to use public instruments to comfort their private friends, while seeking to deny public employee unions -- which represent many, many more people than the One Percent -- similar protections.

Here's an important contextual point that you won't read in Bice's reporting or the Journal Sentinel at large: Labor unions spend a lot less on political campaigns than business interests. Indeed, since the Supreme Court's Citizen United ruling, it's gotten so bad that, all by themselves, the bilious, billionaire Koch brothers in the 2012 national elections spent 2.7 times more than the top ten labor unions combined.

You can see that disparity visualized in the above chart [click on it to enlarge] from the Republic Report, which said that conservative hyping of union campaign spending is hugely misleading, since it is often wrongly lumped into so-called Super PAC donations that aren't all union dollars. "For the last election, Koch PAC spent $4.9 million in disclosed contributions ... but they also spent over $407 million on undisclosed campaign entities, which does not show up in the CRP chart," Republic Report said.

And while the two Koch brothers were far from the only spenders on the right, unions were the major organized donors supporting Democrats. That Republicans have done so well in recent congressional elections and at the state level nationwide ought to come as no surprise. Money talks, and conservative campaigns were awash in it. But while the money talked big time, the money also often refused to say which deep pockets it came from, which was intentional. God forbid the public know who was backing these candidates with horrible, self-serving agendas.

In recent campaign ads, Walker has tried to buff up the state's sad job-creation figures on his four-year watch by focusing on only the most recent monthly job figures -- which are decent, for a change -- even though he previously panned as unreliable the methodology by which those monthly figures are collected. Bice, meanwhile, takes roughly the same approach on donations, focusing on a few, big, recent contributions, which tends to obscure the forest for the trees.

Bice's big revelation: Big union bosses at AFSCME, the "American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers" (actually, it's "Employees," not "Workers") gave $1.1 million to the "Greater Wisconsin Political Fund" (actually, the Greater Wisconsin Committee PAC, a progressive Madison group).

After seven paragraphs about that donation and another sizeable donation to the Greater Wisconsin PAC from the "union bosses" elected by their members to represent many state public school teachers via their union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, Bice turns his gaze upon the "deep pockets" who are dumping similar sums into the Republican Governors Association, which in turn has spent millions on TV ads backing Walker.

Now, comparatively, which phrase sounds more pejorative to you? "Union bosses" or "deep pockets"? It's telling that Bice doesn't see the imbalance and is effectively playing favorites by redeploying the GOP meme. Indeed, as Bice to his credit does go on to report, precisely ONE Milwaukee couple with "deep pockets" nearly matched all the campaign money that came via voluntary member contributions from two public employee unions that collectively have nearly two million members, mostly out of state.

On a smaller scale this represents the Koch Effect all over again: Two million represented teachers and other public employees donate an average of a dollar plus change per person to support Burke, but their effort is matched by just two individuals who give almost the same amount in support of Walker.

Two million citizens versus two citizens. But it's the LABOR UNIONS that are bossy, and loaded for bear? Righhhhhht.

This implied notion is even more absurd when you look as best you can at dark-money spending in the race. Democratic donors tend to send their money in the clear -- that is, you can easily track who gave what to whom. Republican donors tend to use shadowy third-party groups so that, thanks to the conservative U.S. Supreme Court's recent decisions, they get for the most part to remain anonymous. Yet it's clear that wealthy elites like the Kochs have dumped millions upon millions into supporting GOP candidates, right down to local races, in some cases.

And that's not to mention other right-wing interest groups including the NRA, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and Right Direction PAC that each have dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Wisconsin in an attempt to de-rail Burke.

But hey, topping your Dan Bice news report today? More on those supposedly all-powerful (strangely so, despite Walker's law purportedly decapitating them) union bosses. The dastardly bastards who are going all out to win one for a candidate who unlike Walker will not keeping working to destroy their worker organizations, the nation's really one and true political counterweight to plutocracy and Republican hegemony. And it's mostly a mass effort, with many citizens volunteering to walk strange neighborhoods in order to roust voters, and working for free at phone banks.

Meanwhile, over in rich, elite, oligarchyland, in place of that noisy political battleground, we are led once again to consider the blissful sounds of chirping crickets and tweety birds. That one Milwaukee couple flicked off a couple million to their favored conservative causes and, yawning, returned to their comfy chairs and afternoon tea. All in a moment's work, for them.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I suspect Bice may have started out working this legitimate news angle (because campaign spending always is newsworthy) before his search for a compelling lead paragraph veered into the "union bosses" smarm.

But that lead, and the overall piece, is not particularly illuminating, especially in light of what it does not get around to saying. In journalism as in life, context is everything. Let us, indeed, talk about the corrosive influence of big money -- and secret money -- in American politics. But let us talk about it in ways that matter. The big picture is this:

Wisconsin's November state elections will see total campaign spending running into unheard-of tens of millions of dollars, much of that money representing unregulated, secret donations. Those basic facts should be the continuing focus of muckraking journalists (and, yes, bloggers) everywhere. It is the job of truly community-minded news organizations to explain how all this came to pass and what we can do about it before our democracy becomes mere window-dressing. As the non-partisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign put it:

Elected representatives are supposed to take their cues from the voters alone. But with election campaigning so insanely expensive, those representatives have little choice but to also take cues from their campaign donors. And the donor population is not the same as the voting population. On average, state legislators get two-thirds of their campaign money from people who cannot vote for them because these financial backers live outside the legislators' districts. Governor Scott Walker gets more than half of his money from people who are ineligible to vote for him because they live outside Wisconsin's borders.

This corruption of the founders' design has very tangible costs.

A Democracy Campaign report identified close to four dozen actions taken by legislators and the governor just since January 2013 that provided at least $760 million worth of benefits to special interests in the form of tax breaks and other policy favors.

These decisions cost the average family of four $528.

Take note: All else being equal (and it isn't, but that's another tale) that $528 hit will not come close to being balanced out by Walker's meager tax breaks for the same, average family. Context, once again.


October 27, 2014 - 12:04pm