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, 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.