Labor has small spot in N.D. political sceneLabor unions aren’t as prominent in North Dakota as they are in other states, but that doesn’t stop such groups from trying to put even a small stamp of influence on the political map here.
By: By Kristen M. Daum , Forum Communications , The Jamestown Sun
FARGO — Labor unions aren’t as prominent in North Dakota as they are in other states, but that doesn’t stop such groups from trying to put even a small stamp of influence on the political map here.
Since the start of the 2012 campaign — which is on track to be the most expensive in North Dakota’s history — labor unions made about 3 percent of the financial donations the state’s top-ticket candidates have received so far.
A Forum analysis of campaign finance records revealed labor unions contributed $292,000 toward North Dakota’s U.S. House, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates, as of June 30. All but $2,500 of that went to Democrats, which is consistent with the national trend.
Nationwide, unions have given $38.2 million to federal candidates so far this election cycle. Of that, 89 percent went to Democrats, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The money going to North Dakota’s federal candidates amounts to less than 1 percent of unions’ contributions nationwide, exemplifying Big Labor’s comparatively minimal political influence here.
Twenty-three states, including North Dakota, have “right to work” laws, which give workers the freedom to choose whether they join a union. Consequently, that means “a very small percentage of workers in the state belong to unions, or even have the option of belonging to a union,” said Kjersten Nelson, an assistant political science professor at North Dakota State University.
“In general, labor unions have less influence here than in other states,” Nelson said. “Still, unions in the state endorse candidates and donate money. … While the donations are relatively small by national standards, they are not insignificant for some candidates.”
For instance, donations from labor unions account for 17 percent of the $630,000 Democratic House candidate Pam Gulleson raised so far, the most proportionally among North Dakota candidates in the 2012 races.
Campaign finance records show she’s taken in about $107,500 from labor unions since last fall, a figure that also represents about 48 percent of her donations from political action committees.
“Pam has always been a strong supporter of working people,” campaign spokeswoman Hillary Price said. “She’s worked really hard to make sure that workers get a fair shake,” while also encouraging cooperation between unions and management.
Price added that labor unions’ influence in North Dakota “is not the same kind of influence that, say, the oil industry has.”
“They don’t have billions of dollars to spend, and they’re not a huge political force in North Dakota,” she said.
In a similar analysis earlier this summer, The Forum highlighted the substantial campaign donations employees and businesses in the oil and gas industry have given to North Dakota candidates this year.
That data showed Republicans received the lion’s share of oil money, and the donations also represented significant proportions of each Republican candidates’ campaign income.
In an interview for that story, Republican House candidate Kevin Cramer said the oil industry’s donations to Republicans are no different than labor unions’ contributions to Democrats.
“Everybody has an interest and that interest is represented by a philosophy,” Cramer said. “I have access to all the labor union money, too, but they might not support me.”
Cramer hasn’t received any money from unions. Rather, he’s been endorsed by several pro-business associations who’ve also contributed to his campaign coffers.
In pure dollars, Democratic Senate hopeful Heidi Heitkamp has received the most money from unions, amounting to $160,000 so far, The Forum’s analysis showed.
However, the proportional significance of the labor money isn’t as great as Heitkamp’s other, more sizable, sources of income.
Labor unions account for 7.5 percent of the $2.1 million Heitkamp has raised since last fall and, more specifically, about 31 percent of her PAC money.
Proportionally, that’s less than what Heitkamp has received from trial lawyers — who have given about $284,000 — and political PACs — who’ve donated about $302,000, according to campaign finance data compiled by The Forum and the Center for Responsive Politics.
Spokesman Liam Forsythe contrasted Heitkamp’s support for middle-class workers with the personal wealth of her opponent, Republican Rep. Rick Berg, who The Hill recently reported is the 15th richest member of Congress.
“Our campaign has received more than 10,000 contributions from people who are concerned that Rick Berg went to Washington to vote the party line and hasn’t gone to work for North Dakota,” Forsythe said. “We’re happy to be supported by thousands of middle-class North Dakotans who believe in Heidi’s message.”
Berg campaign spokesman Chris Van Guilder said Heitkamp’s labor money shows that electing her would “secure another rubber stamp” for national Democrats’ agenda.
“Whether it’s unions, Harry Reid, anti-energy trial attorneys, or anyone from the long list of national liberals supporting her campaign, it’s clear that President Obama and his allies will continue to support Heidi Heitkamp,” Van Guilder said.
However, Berg has the designation of being the only North Dakota Republican among the federal and gubernatorial candidates to receive union money during this campaign.
FEC records show Berg’s campaign accepted a $2,500 contribution from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a labor union with ties to the AFL-CIO. The group also gave $1,150 to Heitkamp.
That single donation is overshadowed, though, by Berg’s wide support from trade associations and pro-business groups, often the political opponents of unions.
The Forum found Berg has received $327,900 from such trade associations, which represents about 8 percent of the $4.1 million he’s raised for his campaign and about 28 percent of his PAC contributions.
Kristen M. Daum is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.