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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley October 12, 2010

George Will claims AFL-CIO receives dues from foreign entities associated with it - just like U.S. Chamber of Commerce

The Obama administration has continued to speculate about foreign money being used to fund attack ads against Democrats -- and last week President Barack Obama offered Exhibit A: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"Just this week, we learned that one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations," Obama said at a campaign stop on Oct. 7, 2010. "So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections. And they won't tell you where the money (for) their ads comes from."

As ABC's This Week host Christiane Amanpour played a clip of the president's remark during the Oct. 10, 2010, program, she noted that conservative George Will, a panelist on This Week, was shaking his head in frustration.

"Well, he won't tell us who he's talking about," Will said. "He's talking about the Chamber of Commerce, which does indeed receive dues from foreign entities that are associated with American business, just as the AFL-CIO receives dues from foreign entities associated with it. And the shock and awe that we're supposed to feel from this is somewhat selective."

We looked at the president's half of this exchange in a separate item, and rated his claim about the Chamber -- that "groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections" -- Half True.

Here, we'll examine Will's comment that just like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "the AFL-CIO receives dues from foreign entities associated with it."

The Chamber and the AFL-CIO have very different perspectives in the political debate. The Chamber of Commerce predominantly supports Republican candidates, while the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions, almost exclusively backs Democrats.

Will's statement is technically true, said AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale, but requires some caveats.

The AFL-CIO (it stands for American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) is a federation of dozens of unions, so it doesn't have individual members in and of itself. The members belong to unions which in turn are members of the AFL-CIO.

And some of the AFL-CIO's affiliates do have Canadian members -- most notably the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers unions. Those union affiliates pass through a portion of the dues they collect from American members to the AFL-CIO, but not from their foreign members, said Vale.

"We don't take money at the national level from foreign members," Vale said.

There's another big difference in disclosure requirements between unions and groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. While FEC and IRS laws do not require unions to disclose donors -- just as they do not require disclosure of donors to trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- unions are subject to the Labor Management Relations Act, which requires public disclosure of payments over $5,000 to unions. So you can go to the Department of Labor's website and search the contributions to (and disbursements made by) the AFL-CIO and other unions in any given year.

"Our information, people can see it," Vale said.

Politico's Ben Smith did a good explainer of all this, challenging a twitter message posted by Jim Dyke, one of the GOP consultants on the board of the conservative group American Crossroads, which stated, "[U]nions are [501](c)(5)s and don’t that the business as usual? Or does that make them shadowy?"

Smith concluded that unions have to disclose significant contributions, while some of the most politically active groups such as the Chamber of Commerce do not.

Vale would not say how much the AFL-CIO is spending on ads in this year's mid-term elections, but he said the federation spent about $50 million in the 2006 midterm elections. This time around, he said, the AFL-CIO is active in campaigns in about 26 states, particularly in California, New York, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

We e-mailed Will about Vale's characterization of the funding for the AFL-CIO and he responded, "Although I am content to have my statement assessed as 'technically true' --which is to say: true--I would add this from the October 8 New York Times:'Organizations from both ends of the political spectrum, from liberal ones like the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club to conservative groups like the National Rifle Association, have international affiliations and get money from foreign entities while at the same time pushing political causes in the United States.'"

So disclosure requirements for unions are different than "Super PACs" such as Crossroads GPS or trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which essentially have none). But Will didn't broach the disclosure issue in his statement about the AFL-CIO. He said only that the AFL-CIO "receives dues from foreign entities associated with it" just like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce does. It's true that some individual members affiliated with the AFL-CIO collect dues from foreign (Canadian) residents. And those unions pay dues to the AFL-CIO. But according to the AFL-CIO, the dues collected from non-U.S. workers are not passed up to the national AFL-CIO. And so we rate Will's comment Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

ABC News, Video: This Week Roundtable: Money and Politics, Oct. 10, 2010

Politico, "Union disclosure unlike other groups,'" by Ben Smith, Oct. 8, 2010

 White House website, Remarks by the President at Rally for Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, Oct. 7, 2010

Center for Responsive Politics, Foreign-connected PACs

Democratic National Committee, Video: "Stealing Democracy," Oct. 8, 2010

New York Times, "Topic of Foreign Money in U.S. Races Hits Hustings," by Eric Lichtblau, Oct. 8, 2010

PolitiFact, "President Barack Obama says foreign money coming in to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may be helping to fund attack ads," by Robert Farley, Oct. 12, 2010

E-mail interview with George Will, Oct. 12, 2010

Interview with AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale, Oct. 12, 2010

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George Will claims AFL-CIO receives dues from foreign entities associated with it - just like U.S. Chamber of Commerce

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