The really bad news for unions is that the Keystone XL episode is emblematic of a much larger failure of organized labor’s political strategy. To be fair, calling it a strategy may be generous. After the resounding Republican victory in 2004, unions simply resolved to spend as much money as they could to elect as many Democrats as possible.
Since 2008, unions have doled out more than $1 billion in campaign cash, including over $400 million in 2012. And that’s just what the unions own up to spending. Thanks to transparency requirements put in place by the Bush administration’s Department of Labor, the Wall Street Journal was able to estimate last year that labor unions spent $4.4 billion on political activities between 2005 and 2011. Union political spending now exceeds all other direct political donations, though this essential fact is ignored in the incessant media harrumphing over super-PACs, special interests, and other campaign finance issues. The GOP wave in 2010 notwithstanding, union spending has been pretty successful at securing Democratic victories. Policy victories, though, have been harder to come by.
Aside from the delay of the Keystone XL pipeline, three other union developments since Obama’s reelection bear mentioning. In December, Michigan, home of the United Auto Workers and long considered an impregnable union stronghold, outlawed union membership as a condition of employment and became a right-to-work state. Even coming on the heels of recent failures to stop public employee union reform in Wisconsin and the success of right-to-work legislation in Indiana, no one had imagined this happening in Michigan. Public employee union reform was turned back in Ohio—but only after unions spent $40 million on a scorched-earth campaign that included ads warning modest changes to collective bargaining laws would make it “harder for nurses to give the patients the quality care that they need” and “take us back to the days of Jim Crow.” But if compulsory unionism can’t be defended in Michigan, it’s probably endangered everywhere. Already there’s a movement gaining steam to put a right-to-work measure on the Ohio ballot this year. The days of labor laws being rigged in favor of unions are numbered.