Big Labor Reported Spending $1.8 Billion on Politics in the 2020 Election Cycle

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Union bosses spend billions on politics, drawing a massive portion of their funds from dues and fees collected from rank-and-file workers who would be fired if they refused to pay. Media outlets often vastly underreport union bosses’ political expenditures by not accounting for all the spending types listed below.

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Summary of 2020 Election Cycle Big Labor Spending

Union General Treasuries $1,440,654,767; Source: US Department of Labor

Large private-sector unions must file reports with the Department of Labor (DOL) disclosing “political activities and lobbying.” However, many expenses that should be counted as political are misclassified.

State & Local Politics $300,719,429; Source: FollowtheMoney.org

The National Institute for Money in Politics collects data on lobbying and election spending in state and local elections. NILRR excluded private-sector union spending that could also be included on DOL reports.

FEC PACs $57,137,887, Source: OpenSecrets.org

This is the amount spent by union political action committees (PACs) as reported to the Federal Election Commission. Media outlets often report only this number.

(Public sources were used for each spending category listed.)


Union General Treasuries: $1,440,654,767

National Institute for Labor Relations Research (NILRR) staff used totals from SCHEDULE 16–POLITICAL ACTIVITIES AND LOBBYING, found in labor union officer-attested Form LM-2 financial disclosure reports for the filing years 2019 and 2020. These were accessed on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Labor-Management Standards website: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/olms (Downloaded 7/30/2021).

This information was provided by labor union officers who must file Form LM-2 union disclosure reports.

LM-2 reports are signed by union presidents and union secretary-treasurers. Under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, As Amended, officers are subject to criminal penalties for willful failure to file a required report and for false reporting.

A significant source of funding for reported Schedule 16 activities are union dues and fees collected from men and women who would be fired for refusing to pay.

Government Union State & Local PACs: $300,719,429

NILRR staff used state and local campaign contribution data on the National Institute on Money in Politics website: https://www.followthemoney.org/. Using the site’s “ask anything” search tool, NILRR conducted the following two searches:

  1. “State-level” lobbying by “Public Sector Unions” in the 2019 and 2020 reporting years: $75,327,705.
  2. “State and local data” on “Public Sector Unions contributions” in the 2019 and 2020 reporting years: $225,391,724.

We did not include searches for state and local-level political contributions by private-sector unions to avoid potential double-counting, as those disbursements sometimes, but not always, appear in both the National Institute on Money in Politics’ records and the LM-2 data already accounted for in this report.

FEC Political Action Committees (PACs): $57,137,887

Opensecrets.org classifies PAC contributions by industry group. $57,137,887 is the total for “Labor” (https://www.opensecrets.org/political-action-committees-pacs/industry-detail/P/2020)

LMRDA Loopholes Allow Union Officials to Misclassify and Hide Political Expenditures

Despite the penalties for false reporting, LM-2 Schedule 16 activities are often underreported because union officials put clearly political expenses in other categories, including “Schedule 15–Representational Activities;” “Schedule 17 – Contributions, Gifts, and Grants;” “Schedule 18 – General Overhead;” and “Schedule 19 – Union Administration.” Under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA), these schedules are incorrect for expenditures that satisfy the Schedule 16 definition.

The total Schedule 15 & 17 disbursements alone for the 2019-20 reporting period were $6.3 billion, providing ample opportunity to hide political expenses.

Here are just a few examples of LM-2 disclosures that likely should have been reported as political spending, but were not:

  • The National Education Association union (NEA) gave $17,000,000 to the Strategic Victory Fund, a grassroots lobbying organization.
  • The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) gave $2,500,000 to THE FAIRNESS PROJECT, which describes its mission as “putting political power directly into the hands of voters…”.
  • The NEA gave $1,500,000 to the State Engagement Fund, a left-of-center 501(c)(4) advocacy organization.

These disbursements are clearly political, but they were not included in Schedule 16 spending. This is just one way the $1.4 billion reported in LM-2 filings may significantly understate union political spending. (At the end of this report is a longer, though hardly exhaustive, list of other examples of likely misclassifications.)

Even more loopholes exist. Most LMRDA-covered labor organizations are not even required to file Form LM-2 reports because their annual income is below $250,000, including some whose assets and spending far exceeds $250,000. (Some LM-2-exempt unions even have assets exceeding $1 million.) As of 7/8/2021 there were 4,406 LM-2 Filers and 16,405 filers of alternative reports, including 8,670 LM-3 Filers, and 5,557 LM-4 Filers, with the rest filing the “Simplified Form.”

The alternative reports lack a distinct category for political spending, which could permit the vast majority of LMRDA-covered organizations to spend freely on politics without any meaningful transparency. For example, in 2020 affiliates of a Carpenters union and Longshoremen union each reported spending over $1 million, but because both unions were LM-3 filers based on their income, no further details were required about the nature of those expenditures.

Large unions can funnel money to smaller affiliates who do not file Form LM-2 disclosure reports.

The lack of transparency harms the very workers these reports are meant to benefit, many of whom are forced to subsidize union activity just to keep their jobs.

The aggregate $1.8 billion in reported political and lobbying expenditures by labor unions in the 2020 election cycle is likely a significant understatement, because of the opportunities to misreport or hide political spending. However, it is not nearly as big as the understatement frequently made by media outlets that cite only Big Labor Federal PAC contributions ($57,137,887).

As union officials’ own reports demonstrate, the single largest source of union political expenditures are union general treasury funds, whose revenue comes largely from rank-and-file workers’ paychecks. That includes dues and fees paid by millions of workers who would be fired if they refused to pay.

See the full report linked here: Big Labor Reported Spending $1.8 Billion on Politics in the 2020 Election Cycle


Nothing here is to be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress or any state legislature. To obtain more detailed information about how any or all of the above data were derived, contact Don Loos at the National Institute for Labor Relations Research (NILRR.org): 703-321-9606.