Citizens United, Unions, and Corporate Persons

We’ve all heard that the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling by the Supreme Court opened the door to unlimited and undisclosed spending to influence elections. It is widely presumed that the court’s decision granted first amendment rights of free speech to corporations by declaring them to be “natural persons.” But corporations have had rights as persons for a long time. By most accounts, the court has recognized corporations as having all the rights of natural persons since 1886. For a detailed discussion of the 1886 ruling, see Thom Hartmann’s Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became “People” and How You Can Fight Back.

The Citizens United ruling did not establish corporations as people but declared that spending on speech cannot be limited because such limits would deny flesh and blood people the right to hear all points of view. For an in-depth discussion and analysis of the ruling, see “The problem with Citizens United is Not Corporate Personhood” by Rob Hager and James Marc Leas.

Further, if the ruling established corporations as person, it also established unions as persons, given that it removed any restrictions on what unions could spend. People on the right are quick to point this out. The Facebook group called Individual Rights and Government Wrongs wrote:

“According to OpenSecrets.org, twelve of the top twenty donors to political campaigns since 1989 are unions. And their donations have overwhelmingly gone to Democrats—only one union donated as much as 10 percent to Republicans, and eight gave less than 5 percent to Republicans. Further, of the top twenty donors, OpenSecrets ranks only one as leaning towards Republicans in their donations. Apparently, donations from unions do not ‘drown out the voices of everyday Americans,’ even though less than 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized.”

The rightwing sees hypocrisy on the left for decrying the ruling without offering any criticism of the influence of unions, which the right feels is as pernicious as what the left fears from corporate influence.

At least one person on the left sees Citizens United as part of an elaborate union-busting scheme. Douglas Webster wrote on Daily Kos, “the next step after Citizens United — giving more freedom to use more money more clandestinely to business and unions — is to launch a full-scale attack on unions…and especially those in the public sector.” Indeed, since the time he wrote that (February 2011), attacks on unions seem to have grown more intense.

This discussion does not answer the question of whether the speech of unions is equivalent with the speech of corporations. I once heard an explanation of why corporations had the right to spend money to exercise their free speech rights that claimed corporate speech was analogous to a group of people pooling their money to buy a megaphone to amplify their voices. My immediate reaction to that claim was that some corporations were using money they got from me to promulgate speech I find highly objectionable. I do not expect corporations to speak for me. I do not want corporations to speak for me. They are not extending my right to free speech.

On the other hand, I join a union precisely because I do want the union to speak on my behalf. When I pay money to a union, I am hoping to amplify my speech to help balance what I perceive to be unfair corporate control of almost all media in the world. If the union begins to express views I find objectionable, I can and will withhold my money. I would like to withhold my money from corporations that express views I find objectionable, and I do withhold most of it from such corporations, but, like you, I buy products and services from people who do not always share my values and views.

So, I do not find the speech of unions and corporations to be equal. I am not saying the activities of unions should not be regulated and monitored, but I do feel our obligation to regulate corporations is greater. In either case, I believe spending on elections should be disclosed. Transparency promotes more ethical behavior generally, and I cannot think of an instance where transparency would harm the function of democracy when it comes to financing elections. If you can think of exceptions, please let me know.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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One Response to Citizens United, Unions, and Corporate Persons

  1. Charles McDaniel says:

    Part of the problem is that we have a strong bias to see corporations and unions as monoliths and that we assume corporations and unions are necessarily adversarial. This approach had catastrophic results in both the steel and automotive industry by example. The lining up on opposite sides of the table and arm wrestling negotiations left corporations which were overwhelmed by foreign competition. Many corporations no longer exist–and their jobs and many residual benefits are gone as well. Long term unsustainable profits, benefits salaries etc are of mutual concern to both employees and employers. In this context some corporations and their employees actually understand the reality of mutual success or failure. Unions and members can purchase stock and vote by the way. Also corporations can have profit sharing, stock options and board membership on their corporate boards for employee reps.

    In our democratic political environment both corporations (for their stock holders) and unions (for their members) have a strong interest and need to advocate for self interest. The union indeed in part is an association of individuals to counter balance power of an employer that often but not always has considerable resources. Most corporations are not large with great resources by the way and unions could be the entity with much larger resources in this instance. Unions themselves often become detached from the long term and local welfare of their members.

    In protecting themselves in the ebb and flow of history and the cycles of the economy.both unions and corporations can lose sight of the greater good of society and their own strategic interests. Both martial their blunt instruments of power especially leveraging the even greater and more dangerous political powers of the two political parties. These parties are themselves associations of people seeking self interests. These parties measure their success by capturing and maintaining functional majorities in government at various levels. In this pursuit each often takes the short term tactical approach just as corporations often are enticed to provide strong quarterly reports to their voting stock owners. Most stock holders voluntarily purchase voting stock and in many cases jobs require employees to join or at least pay dues to unions whether they support the political positions of their union of not. Few corporations or unions would long keep their leadership unless they are supported by their voting members. Unfortunately these two groups of entities have coalesced to a great degree into one r the other of the two major political parties. Unions participate almost exclusively in the Democratic party (over one third of the delegates were union members (a much larger percentage than their national representation) at the Democratic National Convention. It is likely that the large corporation are represented disproportionately more at the Republican National Convention. Sadly this perpetuates a highly contentious and considerably damaging posturing at the national and likely state government centers. It has become a perpetual win/lose during the legislative sessions, and playing to the constituency for re-election rather than finding a sustainable long term process for the greater good. For political advantage distortion and hiding the long term costs of programs have been substituted for open, sincere dialogue. Until this trend reverses, the nation will continue to deteriorate at the expense of all whether you call them unions and corporations or employees and employers.

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