Introduction for EducatorsTable of ContentsUpdates & Latest AdditionsLearning Pathway: Black Lives MatterLearning Pathway: Influential WomenLearning Pathway: Student RightsLearning Pathway: Election 2020Learning Pathway: Current Events Learning Pathway: Media Literacy Teacher-Designed Learning PlansTopic 1. The Philosophical Foundations of the United States Political System1.1. The Government of Ancient Athens1.2. The Government of the Roman Republic1.3. Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government1.4. British Influences on American Government1.5. Native American Influences on American GovernmentTopic 2. The Development of the United States Government2.1. The Revolutionary Era and the Declaration of Independence2.2. The Articles of Confederation2.3. The Constitutional Convention2.4. Debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists2.5. Articles of the Constitution and the Bill of RightsTopic 3. Institutions of United States Government3.1. Branches of the Government and the Separation of Powers3.2. Examine the Relationship of the Three Branches3.3. The Roles of the Congress, the President, and the Courts3.4. Elections and Nominations3.5. The Role of Political PartiesTopic 4. The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizens4.1. Becoming a Citizen4.2. Rights and Responsibilities of Citizens and Non-Citizens4.3. Civic, Political, and Private Life4.4. Fundamental Principles and Values of American Political and Civic Life4.5. Voting and Citizen Participation in the Political Process4.6. Election Information4.7. Leadership and the Qualities of Political Leaders4.8. Cooperation Between Individuals and Elected Leaders4.9. Public Service as a Career4.10. Liberty in Conflict with Equality or Authority4.11. Political Courage and Those Who Affirmed or Denied Democratic Ideals4.12. The Role of Political Protest4.13. Public and Private Interest Groups, PACs, and Labor UnionsTopic 5. The Constitution, Amendments, and Supreme Court Decisions5.1. The Necessary and Proper Clause5.2. Amendments to the Constitution5.3. Constitutional Issues Related to the Civil War, Federal Power, and Individual Civil Rights5.4. Civil Rights and Equal Protection for Race, Gender, and Disability5.5. Marbury v. Madison and the Principle of Judicial Review5.6. Significant Supreme Court DecisionsTopic 6. The Structure of Massachusetts State and Local Government6.1. Functions of State and National Government6.2. United States and Massachusetts Constitutions6.3. Enumerated and Implied Powers6.4. Core Documents: The Protection of Individual Rights6.5. 10th Amendment to the Constitution6.6. Additional Provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution6.7. Responsibilities of Federal, State and Local Government6.8. Leadership Structure of the Massachusetts Government6.9. Tax-Supported Facilities and Services6.10. Components of Local GovernmentTopic 7. Freedom of the Press and News/Media Literacy7.1. Freedom of the Press7.2. Competing Information in a Free Press7.3. Writing the News: Different Formats and Their Functions7.4. Digital News and Social Media7.5. Evaluating Print and Online Media7.6. Analyzing Editorials, Editorial Cartoons, or Op-Ed Commentaries
4.13

Public and Private Interest Groups, PACs, and Labor Unions

Standard 4.13: Public and Private Interest Groups, PACs, and Labor Unions

Examine the influence of public and private interest groups in a democracy, including policy organizations in shaping debate about public policy. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T4.13]

FOCUS QUESTION: What Roles do Public and Private Interest Groups, Political Action Committees, and Labor Unions Play in American Politics?

Lobbying
"Lobbying" by OpenClipart-Vectors is licensed under Pixabay License

This standard looks at the ways Special Interest Groups, Political Action Committees, and Labor Unions seek to influence public policy. Each of these organizations engages in lobbying to influence governmental action or policies through oral or written communications and through spending large amounts of money to support candidates and causes.

Money and lobbying can be very effective in enacting or changing public policy. In 2018, there were 11,651 registered lobbyists in the United States and total lobbying spending was $3.49 billion (Lobbying Database, OpenSecrets.org). Learn more about Lobbyists from OpenSecrets.org.

Special Interest Groups and Political Action Committees engage in policy lobbying while supporting candidates for local, state, and federal offices through cash contributions. You can explore the topic more at our wiki page on Interest Groups and Political Action Committees.

In addition to those activites, Labor Unions engage in direct action for change or strikes. A strike is an “organized stoppage or slow down of work by employees” intended to force employers to meet the strikers’ demands for change (Denver Classroom Teachers Association, 2019, p. 1). As established by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, employees have a Right to Strike for economic benefits or against unfair labor practices.

Money is a key to action for all these organizations. Being able to spend large sums of money means the voices of some public and private interest groups are heard more often and more directly than the opinions of everyday people.

How do these public and private interest groups function within the United States system of government? The modules for this standard explore that question. 

1. INVESTIGATE: Special Interest Groups, Political Action Committees (PACs and SuperPACs), and Labor Unions

Special Interest Groups

Special interest groups, also called "pressure groups," are organizations formed to influence public policy and advance the beliefs and interests of the group’s members.

Special interest groups regularly seek financial contributions from their members and use those funds to give political donations to politicians who are favorable to their point of view. Interest groups also use "lobbying" as a means of reaching their goals. Lobbying involves using pressure, or other means, to convince policymakers to pass legislation benefiting the groups or its causes.

Economic interest groups have a primary aim to improve the economy, including Labor groups, Professional groups, Business groups, and Farm groups. 

Cause groups direct their efforts to achieve particular benefits to their members such as Veterans' groups, religious organizations, and disability support groups.

Suggested Learning Activity

  • Investigate
    • Select an issue from the following list of Special National Interest Groups from OpenSecrets.org, an organization that seeks to inform and engage Americans by exposing disproportionate or undue influence on public policy by special interests.
    • Examine the special interest groups (SIGs) related to that issue to understand why they seek to influence policymakers. What did you uncover?

Online Resources for Interest Groups

Political Action Committees (PACs and SuperPACs)

Political Action Committees (PACs) are organizations that collect and donate funds to political candidates. PACs can be formed by corporations, labor unions, trade unions, and various groups of people. They are widely used in elections for the House of Representatives, Senate, and President, and in some state elections.

Symbol for the Stand with Orlando Campaign

Symbol for the Stand with Orlando Campaign by the MoveOn.org Interest Group 
Credit: Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

The first PAC was formed in 1944 by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (a labor union group) to help reelect President Franklin D. Roosevelt. To reduce the amount of influence of money on elections, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 limited the amount of money a person, group, or corporation could give to a candidate. The legislation actually had the opposite effect as more PACs sought many smaller donations from more people. While there were about 600 PACs in the early 1970s, today there are more than 4,600 (What is a PAC? Open Secrets.org).

Citizens United Supreme Court Decision

While in the past political action committees were created by businesses or unions, today there are many types of PACs established by politicians and interested citizens who want to raise money for political purposes. The 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision changed the rules about how candidates can raise money to run for office. This 5 to 4 decision established that corporations and organizations have the constitutional right to spend money to promote candidates and their policies.  

SuperPACs and Dark Money

Two new terms—Super PACs and Dark Money—have dramatically changed how individuals and groups go about influencing public policy and participating in elections:  

Democracy for All Constitutional Amendment

Critics of the Citizens United decision including 20 state legislatures, more than 260 members of Congress, and millions of individual citizens have proposed an amendment to the Constitution designed to establish rules to limit campaign contributions and campaign spending, especially by corporations.

One effort to curb the influence of money in politics is to pass a 28th Amendment to the Constitution. Read a text of the proposed Democracy for All amendment, introduced by Senator Ben Cardin (D) from Maryland.

You can go here to learn more about money in American politics.

Suggested Learning Activities

Online Resources for PACS and Campaign Finance

Labor Unions

A labor union is an organization of workers who negotiate with employers to gain better wages, benefits, working conditions, and on-the-job safety. Unions also engage in political activities including endorsing candidates and lobbying for the passage of legislation.  

The first U.S. labor union is reported to have been the Federal Society of Journeyman Cordwainers (cordwainers were shoemakers) in Philadelphia in 1791. The first union of working women was the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, formed in 1844 by women who worked in the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts.

In 2020, there are 14.6 million union members with another 1.8 million workers covered by a union contract (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). But only 11.9% of American workers belong to a union; just 6.9% of those are in the private sector.

African Americans were involved in labor unions and labor actions from before the Civil War (African Americans and the American Labor Movement). Isaac Myers was one of the early Black labor leaders. He founded the Caulkers Association, one of the first Black trade unions in 1838 (caulkers were important workers in the shipbuilding industry). In 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters led by A. Philip Randolph became the first African American labor union to be recognized by the American Federation of Labor. Randolph was aided greatly by the organizing efforts of Rosina Corrothers Tucker who founded the Ladies' Auxiliary (Women's Economic Councils) also in 1925.

Unions use collective bargaining to negotiate contracts with employers. Collective bargaining involves a give and take as both sides advance proposals and work to achieve a compromise acceptable to everyone. When collective bargaining fails to achieve results, unions may restore to a strike. A strike is a labor action where workers refuse to go back to work until progress is made in meeting their demands for change.  

1975 U.S. Stamp

1975 U. S. Stamp
(Credit:  U.S. Postal Service | Public Domain)

Many important events in U.S. history involve the causes and consequences of labor strikes. A Labor Unions and Radical Political Parties in the Industrial Era wiki page has material on key moments in labor history including the Lowell Mill Girls, The Great Railway Strike of 1877 (see below), the Atlanta Washerwoman Strike of 1881, Bread and Roses Strike (1912), the New York Shirtwaist Makers Strike of 1909, the Knights of Labor, the Haymarket Riot of 1886, the American Federation of Labor headed by Samuel Gompers, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union.

Freight train

Freight train, under a guard of United States marshals, at East St. Louis, Illinois
Credit: Image from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 10, 1886/Public Domain

Media Literacy Connections: Investigating Online Political Advertising

Special Interest Groups, Political Action Committees, and Labor Unions are constantly engaging in political advocacy through advertising. They devote enormous amounts of time and resources to persuading voters and citizens to support their positions on issues and candidates.

In the past, these organizations relied mainly on newspapers, direct mail and television advertising, and they still use these media today. Running for President in 2008, Barack Obama changed the political advertising landscape by using social media to reach voters. Since then, the amount of money spent on online ads has gone from the millions to the billions, and continues to grow with every election cycle on Facebook and Google and other lesser well-known platforms as well. Many of these ads are carefully designed to microtarget specific groups with specific messages.

Paradoxically, as the American Bar Association has pointed out, “lying in political ads is also perfectly legal” because what is said is considered the political speech and that is protected under the First Amendment (Political Advertising on Social Media, June 26, 2020). As a consequence, misinformation and disinformation keeps reappearing, especially in 2021 around the Big Lie that the 2020 Election was stolen from the former President.

In this activity, you will examine and evaluate the use of political advertising on social media by Political Action Committees (PACs)and Labor Union.

Activity 1: PAC TV and Social Media Ads

  1. 3View the TV ads created by PACs for the 2020 election, below. Analyze them for their effectiveness in displaying their message to viewers. Did you find any potential inaccuracies and misinformation in their appeals to voters?

  1. Next, visit the websites of these organizations and evaluate their current political advocacy activities on social media. 

  • Do the ads differ from the television ads from the 2020 election?
  • Did you find any potential inaccuracies and misinformation in their appeals to voters?
  1. Choose one of the PACs below and write a script for a social media advertisement that they would likely create for a current issue or political candidate. 

Activity 2: Unions in the News and Online

  1. Many prominent news sources have sections of their websites dedicated to labor unions. Analyze the coverage of labor unions from the sources below by comparing the similarities and differences in labor union coverage.

  1. Next, visit the websites of these organizations and evaluate their current political advocacy activity on social media activities.

  • Did you find any potential inaccuracies and misinformation in their appeals to voters?
  1. Choose a major national or local labor union organization and write a script for a social media advertisement that they would likely create for a current issue or political candidate. 

Resources:

Suggested Learning Activities

A sleeping car porter

A sleeping car porter employed by the Pullman Company at Union Station in Chicago, Illinois, 1942
Credit: Photography by Jack Delano/Library of Congress | Public Domain

Online Resources for Labor Unions

SketchNote by Sydney Turcot
SketchNote by Sydney Turcot (September 2020)

2. UNCOVER: The Pullman Strike of 1894 and the History of Labor Day

The Pullman Strike was a labor action and boycott that caused a nationwide railroad crisis in June and July of 1894. The largest worker strike of the 19th century, it featured key historical figures, pressing social issues, and the changing roles of labor unions and big businesses in American society.

National Guard troops firing on Pullman strikers 1894
Credit:  Harper's Weekly | Public Domain

The strike began as a walkout by workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in the town of Pullman just south of Chicago, Illinois. George Pullman was an industrial entrepreneur who gained fame and fortune by developing luxury passenger and dining cars for railroad passengers.

In the decades after the Civil War, Pullman employed former slaves as porters at minimal wages in his railroad cars, becoming the largest employer of African Americans in the country at the time. He made huge profits by leasing Pullman cars to railroad companies and he also received a portion of the money the railroads charged passengers for riding in them. At the time of the strike, Pullman had made an enormous fortune.

Interior of Pullman Palace Sleeping Car

Interior of Pullman Palace Sleeping Car
Credit:  Photo by Carleton E.Watkins | Public Domain

The workers who built the passenger cars lived in a company town controlled by Pullman. He paid very low wages and charged very high rents. The striking workers were members of a newly formed American Railway Union whose President was Eugene V. Debs. A former railroad fireman, Debs was an outspoken political activist who was the Socialist Party candidate for President of the United States in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920 (Debs and the Socialist Party received 6 percent of the national vote in the 1912 Presidential election).

Led by Debs, the American Railway Union voted to boycott Pullman cars. 125,000 workers went on strike, shutting down many of the nation’s rail lines. After George Pullman refused to negotiate, President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops to confront the strikers. Violence followed, 30 workers died, Eugene Debs was arrested, and the strike ended. But popular opinion turned against Pullman and toward Debs and the Socialist Party’s fight for worker rights and economic justice.  

To quiet potential public unrest, President Cleveland established Labor Day as a holiday for workers. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. There is more information about the history of Labor Day and its connections to the Pullman Strike of 1894 from Samuel Gompers’ 1910 article The Significance of Labor Day and Labor Day's Violent Beginnings, a YouTube video from CNNMoney.

Suggested Learning Activities

Online Resources for the Pullman Strike

3. ENGAGE: What Role Does Money Play in Our Elections?

The 2020 Election was the most expensive ever (Brennan Center for Justice, November 11, 2020). Candidates and campaigns spent nearly $14 billion. A billion is a huge number; if you began saving $100 a day it would take you 27,397.26 years to reach just 1 billion (How Big is a Billion?).

The Assemblyman Is Perplexed

The Assemblyman Is Perplexed, Political Cartoon (1891)
Credit: Wikimedia Commons The Wasp (San Francisco) Vol. 26, 1891 | Public Domain

Corporate Donations

With deep pockets and few checks and balances, corporations are a "dominant source of political funding today" (Center for Political Accountability, para. 1). By law, corporations cannot make direct contributions to candidates for President or Congress or to national political parties.

But corporations can fund:

You can see where 492 companies made donations to at the Center for Political Accountability's Track Your Company site.

Almost every political candidate, no matter how great their personal wealth, relies on political donations to fund their campaigns for office. In these situations, politicians are reluctant to offend their donors. One dramatic impact of the 2021 Attack on the Nation's Capitol by an insurrectionist mob were announcements by many major corporations that they were suspending donations to members of the Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 Presidential election results. Firms included Marriott, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Commerce Bancshares, Amazon, AT&T, Comcast, Airbnb, Mastercard, Verizon, and Dow. However, other companies such as McDonalds and Bank of America chose not to halt donations (A Corporate Backlash, The New York Times, January 12, 2021).

Impacts of Money on Election Outcomes

In present day American politics, the candidate who spends the most money usually wins in races for Congress (Koerth, 2018). But the story is more complicated than a wealthy individual or a well-funded group buying an election by spending the most money.

Looking more deeply, researchers found that while money alone is not always the deciding factor in who wins, it often determines who gets to run for office. A typical member of Congress has a median income of $1.1 million (Senator: $3.2 million; Representative: $900,000) which is 12 times richer than the typical American household (Quartz, February 12, 2018). Put simply, those who are wealthy can afford to run for state and national office, so they do. In many instances, potential candidates who do not have lots of money are unable to afford to seek a political office.

Being a candidate, especially at the state and national level, requires large amounts of money. According to the election monitoring organization OpenSecrets.org, the total cost of elections in 2016 was $2,386,876,712 for the Presidential race and $4,124,304,874 for all the races for Congress. $1.2 million was the average amount spent by a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016. Republicans and incumbents spent more than challengers. The more a challenger spends, the more likely they win.

Nationally, candidates have Four Ways to Fund a Presidential Campaign. They can rely on either:

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Collect and Analyze Data
    • Explore the Distribution of Money in the Presidential 2016 elections.
      • Which presidential candidates used outside money or candidate committee money on their campaign?
    • View Lobbyist spending over the course of over 15 years. 
      • Browse the tabs to view top spenders and ranked sectors.
      • Then consider what role does money play in our elections?
  • Investigate and Report
    • Examine Presidential Tax Returns from Richard Nixon in 1974 to Barack Obama in 2009, as well as those of Franklin Roosevelt and the 2010 presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Presidents began releasing tax returns in the 1970's. Neither President Donald Trump nor Presidential candidate Gerald Ford (in 1976) released their tax returns (Politifact Wisconsin, 2016).
      • What conclusions do you draw from the tax returns?  
      • Should presidential candidates or candidates for other public offices be required to release tax returns? Why or why not?

Online Resources for Money in Politics

Standard 4.13 Conclusion

Public and private interest groups play significant roles in American politics. INVESTIGATE looked at how interest groups, political actions committees, and labor unions seek to influence public policy through lobbying, political campaign contributions, and, in the case of unions, direct action strikes. UNCOVER reviewed the Pullman Strike of 1894 and its connections to the nation’s Labor Day holiday. ENGAGE asked what role does money play in our elections.