union political spending

The Battle for Worker Freedom: How Government Unions Fund Politics Across the Country

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Key Findings

  • The four largest government unions, the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), spent $708.8 million on politics during the 2021–22 election cycle.
  • Nearly 60 percent of all union political spending comes from union dues. Government unions directly or indirectly fund independent expenditures and lobbying or advocacy efforts with funds taken from union members.
  • Government union-connected political action committee (PAC) contributions accounted for about 40 percent of political spending. Member PAC deductions must be voluntary but are deducted automatically through the taxpayer-funded public payroll system in many states.
    • PAC contributions were heavily one-sided, with 95.7 percent of contributions going to Democratic candidates and organizations across state and federal elections.
  • Illinois saw the most government union spending of any state at $27.9 million.
  • Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro was the top recipient of government union money nationwide, taking in over $4.5 million.

Executive Summary

Most of a union’s revenue comes from its membership, in the form of member dues. Yet, just 19.8 percent of all dues expenditures went to fund union representational activities, the spending category most aligned with membership support. While unions cannot legally use membership dues to contribute directly to campaigns, they frequently spend dues dollars on independent expenditures, contributions to SuperPACs, and other lobbying or political advocacy efforts. In 2021 and 2022, financial disclosure reports revealed that the NEA, AFT, AFSCME, and SEIU used membership dues to spend a combined $406,287,908 on political activities.[1] Overall, membership dues funded nearly 60 percent of union political spending during the 2021–22 election cycle.

Meanwhile, government unions also create and maintain PACs that collect additional funds from members and their families. During the 2021–22 election cycle, the four largest government union PACs spent $157.4 million on federal political campaigns. Contributions to federal PACs and interest groups accounted for over $149 million of government union political expenditures.[2] Most of these contributions went to Democratic candidates and Democrat-affiliated organizations. Campaign finance reports reveal that government union PACs spent approximately $145.1 million on state and local politics during the 2021–22 election cycle. The four largest government unions were active in every state, but to varying degrees. In total, 95.5 percent of partisan contributions at the state and local level went to Democratic candidates and PACs.[3]

Partisan trends heavily favored Democrats, but this was not the case in every state. In five states, government union PACs contributed more to Republican candidates than Democratic candidates.

Each of the ten largest recipients of government union PAC money at the state and local level were Democrats. Seven of the ten candidates brought in over $1 million. Pennsylvania’s Shapiro received the most money from the NEA, AFT, AFSCME, and SEIU, bringing in over $4.5 million on the campaign trail.[4] Rob Bonta, California’s attorney general, followed at nearly $1.3 million. Emmanuel “Chris” Welch, the Illinois Speaker, was the largest legislative recipient, while Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson was the highest local recipient.[5] Generally, government union contributions favored candidates for statewide office as only two of the top 10 recipients were not running for a statewide position. Of the 10 largest recipients, Beto O’Rourke was the only candidate who lost their election.


Government unions are a top influence in Washington, D.C., and state capitals throughout the country. During the 2021–22 election cycle, the NEA, AFT, AFSCME, and SEIU spent $708.8 million on politics and lobbying.[6] Members funded this activity through membership dues and PAC deductions. As more lawmakers and stakeholders become aware of government unions’ political power and the legal inequities that grant them this power, unions will focus more resources on fighting against reform.

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[1]Office of Labor-Management Standards, LM Reports and Constitutions and Bylaws (Online Public Disclosure Room, Union Reports), U.S. Department of Labor, accessed July 17, 2023, https://olmsapps.dol.gov/olpdr/?_ga=2.136748144.1176562507.1697650749-906770878.1697210649.

[2]To the reader, calculations based on PAC spending per OpenSecrets Organization Summaries for the NEA, AFT, AFSCME, and SEIU (see: OpenSecrets, “Organization Profiles,” accessed July 17, 2023, https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/all-profiles).

[3]Source: Campaign finance reports filed by the NEA, AFT, AFSCME, and SEIU, and their affiliated unions with the responsible campaign finance reporting entity in each state. See also the report appendix, “Summary of Union Political Spending in Each State.”

[4]Pennsylvania Department of State, “Shapiro, Josh for Pennsylvania, Campaign Finance Summary: Year 2021, 2022” accessed July 11, 2023, https://www.campaignfinanceonline.pa.gov/Pages/CFAnnualTotals.aspx?Filer=20160016. See report appendix comparison of 50 states.

[5]To the reader, this research tracks political contributions from January 1, 2021 to December 31, 2022. Johnson declared his candidacy in October 2022 and won in February 2023. According to the Illinois Policy Institute, he received nearly $5.6 million from teacher unions (see: Mailee Smith, “Three Ways Chicago Mayor Johnson Is Likely to Repay Unions for Bankrolling Him,” Illinois Policy Institute, August 24, 2023, https://www.illinoispolicy.org/3-ways-chicago-mayor-johnson-is-likely-to-repay-unions-for-bankrolling-him/).

[6]Source: Membership dues spending per U.S. Department of Labor OLMS LM-2 reports filed by the NEA, AFT, AFSCME, and the SEIU, and PAC spending per OpenSecrets Organization Summaries and campaign finance reports filed in 50 states by the NEA, AFT, AFSCME, and the SEIU.