Unions Should Look to the NRA

Interesting thought. Of course, unions are supposed to be about negotiating with business owners on behalf of their members, but so many of them have just become political activist groups.

One model for unions in the post-Janus era could be another modestly financed and increasingly unpopular membership organization: the National Rifle Association. Though a villain in the eyes of labor’s allies on the left, the gun lobby’s staying power in American politics should be an inspiration to activist groups across the spectrum.

What could unions learn from the NRA? For one thing, you can have clout without money. To be sure, the NRA throws money around, but not as much as you think. Last year it spent $4m on lobbying – about the same amount as the dairy farmers’ lobby, and just over a tenth of what the National Association of Realtors spent. The Chamber of Commerce, the country’s main business lobby, spent $100m more than the NRA did. For presidential elections, the NRA spends more: $30m on Trump, more than twice what it spent on Romney in 2012, but less than the top Super Pacs and two individuals, the conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and liberal hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. In 2017, the NRA spent just over $1m on federal races, compared to the $12.7m spent by Comcast.

To even call the NRA a “gun lobby” obscures the real source of its power: its members. The respective opponents of unions and the NRA both focus disproportionately on their money. Gun control advocates organize boycotts to “defund the NRA”; unions still get called “big labor” with a straight face by business lobbies that outspend them 10 to 1. This kind of economic reductionism misses the real added value membership organizations offer to the parties they favor: boots on the ground for elections.