Summary: From the “Subway Vigilante” and Tawana Brawley cases to the Pigs in a Blanket movement, the Rev. Al Sharpton has been a controversial public figure for more than three decades, first in New York and then nationwide. Today, he is one of the most influential people in the country, closely tied to the mayor of the nation’s largest city and to the President of the United States. And much of his influence and his financing can be traced to his ties to labor unions.
Al Sharpton has spent decades bringing attention to real and (in most cases) imaginary abuses committed by law enforcement officials and their allies. He has brought together mobs to demand the imprisonment of innocent people on such charges as rape and murder. He and his followers have filled the air with threats of “no justice, no peace,” and they have defined “justice” without regard to the truth. He is considered the father of the Pigs in a Blanket movement that in recent months has inspired shootings of police officers from New York to Missouri to Texas to Kentucky.
He depends on the largesse of Big Business. He has his own TV show on the MSNBC “news” channel, and is a top advisor to, and unofficial agent of, President Barack Obama.
Politico in 2014 called him the President’s “go-to” person on race. By May 2015, he had visited the President and/or his senior appointees at the White House more than 100 times. Since taking office, the President twice has been the featured speaker at the annual convention of Sharpton’s nonprofit organization, National Action Network.
And, for much of his funding and organizational support, Sharpton depends on labor unions. Without realizing it, millions of Americans who pay union dues—voluntarily or involuntarily—help make the Al Sharpton phenomenon a reality.
On the Left
On issues big and small, Sharpton has taken a Far Left position. In 2001, he was arrested while protesting U.S. Navy practice bombings on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, along with other public figures such as Robert Kennedy Jr., the actor Edward James Olmos, and Dennis Rivera, then head of the nation’s largest union local, Local 1199 (SEIU Healthcare Workers East).
In 2003, he likened the Democratic Leadership Council—the party faction once headed by Bill Clinton—to segregationists. “They don’t call themselves the Dixiecrats now, they call themselves the DLC,” he said.
In subsequent years, he seemed to be everywhere, running for president in 2003-2004, then establishing his organization, National Action Network, as a touchstone in national Democratic politics.
Sharpton declared the Second Amendment outdated, noting that “People do not have the right to unregulated rights in this country.” When radio commentator Rush Limbaugh tried to buy part of the St. Louis Rams football team, Sharpton attempted to block the deal, an effort that was successful. When leaders in Indiana sought to protect the right of caterers and photographers to refuse to participate in weddings for religious reasons—a right supported 82%-10% in one recent national poll—Sharpton likened this religious-freedom effort to “slavery,” “Jim Crow,” and denying “women’s right to vote.”
In May of this year, when floods killed 13 people in Texas and six in Oklahoma, he tweeted: “Do you think the Texas Flooding is related to climate control or God’s rebuke?” He recently called “climate change” a “civil rights issue” and said “it is an issue of justice, and it is an issue of human rights. African Americans are at a higher risk of being close, or predisposed to areas of carbon, as well as other poisonous pollution in the air. And we have a disproportionate interest because we suffer disproportionately.” (Carbon dioxide, the gas that is the primary target of current “climate change” policies, is present in the atmosphere worldwide and is harmless to humans.)
Regarding the Iran nuclear weapons deal, Sharpton called on “ministers in black churches nationwide” to back the deal from their pulpits. “We have a disproportionate interest,” he said, “being that if there is a war, our community is always disproportionately part of the armed services, and that a lot of the debate is by people who will not have family members who will be at risk.” (According to military historian Victor Davis Hanson, there is no evidence that African Americans are more at risk than other groups with regard to the dangers of military service.)
Often, Sharpton’s focus is on issues that are at the top of the unions’ agenda. In 2011, he joined with Lee Saunders, then secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME), to protest a Georgia law meant to crack down on people who enter the U.S. illegally or remain in the country after their visas have expired. Sharpton said he was working to protect citizens who might be profiled. “They’ll start with Latinos, say they look like illegal Mexicans. Then it’ll be blacks, saying they look like illegal Caribbean.”
Also attending the rally were members of Jobs with Justice (a front for the Service Employees International Union), the Atlanta/North Georgia Labor Council, and Teamsters Local 728. AFSCME’s Saunders, by the way, is now the union’s president. He is also a board member of National Action Network.
Also in 2011, Sharpton took a stand against governors who were trying to put a lid on the power of public employees’ unions. Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) attempted to curb abuses by public-sector unions. Kasich’s reforms, in the form of Senate Bill 5, passed the state legislature and were signed into law, but eventually overturned in a statewide referendum. Sharpton was a leader of the effort to block the Kasich reforms. He came to Cleveland, where he spoke at the Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church against Senate Bill 5. Sharpton was joined by AFSCME’s Lee Saunders.
As reported in the newspaper Call & Post:
Sharpton used strong words to push against Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich and members of the Ohio legislature who are trying to limit collective bargaining. “They’ve brought in a right wing that is now trying to change everything that protects us and the progress we have made,” said Sharpton at the breakfast gathering. . . . “Where we thought we were talking about deficits, they were talking about union busting and robbing people of the civil rights of collective bargaining.”
Monday afternoon Rev. Sharpton spoke at Cleveland City Hall along with Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Cleveland City Council members, and Saunders. Sharpton held a news conference on the front steps of Cleveland City Hall. There, he told reporters that those against Senate Bill 5 were waging a war on the proposal. “As we combine the civil rights and labor communities along with congressional leaders like Dennis Kucinich, we are sure we can fight this,” said Sharpton, as other local leaders flanked him and applauded his words.
Sharpton ended his evening at Local 310 Hall where he had a standing-room-only crowd. “Workers should not be robbed of the civil right to organize,” says Sharpton. He says he will do whatever it takes to protect workers including challenging it in court. Reverend Al Sharpton is standing united with Northeast Ohioans worried about their fate if Senate Bill 5 (SB5) becomes law. “I come to Ohio to tell you, Governor, that our strength doesn’t come from what you see, our strength comes from what you can’t see,” said Rev. Sharpton.
The Toledo Blade described another segment of Sharpton’s anti-Senate Bill 5 tour, which was part of a national pro-union campaign:
The fight over public union power isn’t just a labor struggle, the Rev. Al Sharpton and national union leaders said yesterday at Toledo’s Roy C. Start High School. It’s a civil rights battle, they said.
The event, along with a breakfast meeting at Pinewood Tabernacle Church, were stops on a tour by Mr. Sharpton and top labor leaders of labor battleground sites across the country. The events were billed as part of a “fight against the coordinated attack on public services.”
Mr. Sharpton was in Cleveland Monday, calling for a “war” against the Republican-backed legislation now before the Ohio House that would strip Ohio’s public union members of the right to collective bargaining—a bill supported by Gov. John Kasich. Mr. Sharpton said yesterday that threats to labor rights are a civil rights issue and that the legislation would hurt not just teachers but also their students’ futures and the community at large. He and union leaders praised Start’s high graduation rate and said the proposed legislation could roll back the school’s success. “This is what we are fighting to maintain,” Mr. Sharpton said of Start [High School]. “If we make it difficult for teachers to work, if we denigrate them, we turn schools like this around.”
Keep in mind that Sharpton was talking about “collective bargaining rights” for government employee unions—rights that were historically opposed by such pro-union figures as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first president of the AFL-CIO, George Meany, who believed it was “impossible to bargain collectively with the government.”
When Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), in an effort to balance the state budget, proposed reforms related to teacher tenure and government employees’ pension and health benefits, Sharpton rallied opposition. “We have committed to going all over this country to deal with the reality that we cannot balance the deficits and the budgets that we didn’t cause on the backs of working-class people,” he said at a rally. He was joined at the event by AFSCME’s Lee Saunders and Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers.
In a 2011 Huffington Post column, Sharpton went after Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.):
Madison, Wisconsin—arguably the center of labor movements and unions—is under attack. In one of the largest and troubling setbacks to workers’ rights, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has proposed regressive legislation that not only dismantles the ability of civil employees to oppose unjust practices, but it essentially demonizes each individual’s self-worth. As thousands continue to gather in Wisconsin to protest laws that would require them to pay more for their pensions and health insurance, similar action is taking place in New Mexico and around the country as unions face continued assault. The nation, in effect, is at a pivotal moment not seen since the days of the great civil rights movement….
Last week, I was in New Mexico with Lee Saunders, International Secretary-Treasurer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), as we addressed a similar attack on workers in that state. . . . [W]e must ensure that other states and municipalities do not begin to undermine the people who clean our streets, collect our garbage, teach our children, deliver our mail and tremendously help us all on a daily basis.
One night in 2012, Sharpton used his TV show, PoliticsNation, as a forum to attack the Right to Work legislation then up for consideration in Michigan. He called it “an extreme attack on core democratic policies.” He claimed that “billionaire conservatives” were behind the effort and that “their goal is the same it was then: cripple unions to pad their corporate profits and take down a key source of support for the Democratic Party.” The following night, Sharpton huffed: “Threats, intimidation, undemocratic moves. Right now, Michigan is the center of the right-wing attack on workers’ rights, and we must fight it.”
When National Action Network held a major event in Los Angeles, a NAN press release made clear the continuing ties between Sharpton’s group and the union movement:
Dr. [Martin Luther] King visited Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Watts Riots to decry the violence; today, Rev. Al Sharpton and the Los Angeles Chapter of National Action Network are working in the same tradition to carry on Dr. King’s vision of equality. Proceeds from the event will go towards funding NAN’s 2015 Technology Tour, which will create tech academies in five cities across the U.S., including New York, Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles and Oakland. Sponsors include: AFSCME Local 393/AFL-CIO; Charter Communications, Inc.; The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO; SEIU Local 2015; UDW: The Homecare Providers Union, United Domestic Workers of America.
Today, Sharpton plays a prominent role in efforts by unions to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour—which would have the effect of making millions of entry-level workers potentially unemployable.
Sharpton’s National Action Network was founded in 1991 and now takes in at least $5 million a year.
Nevertheless, NAN and other Sharpton-controlled organizations are in poor financial shape. Federal and New York State tax liens against Sharpton and his nonprofit and for-profit organizations now total around $4.5 million.
National Action Network’s 2013 filing with the IRS showed a negative asset balance of $1.33 million. That’s one of several reasons why the nonprofit watchdog group Charity Navigator recently placed NAN on its watch list. Even personal loans from Sharpton, totaling almost $329,000, haven’t put his group in the black.
Still, lots of money is coming in, especially from Big Business. Individual donations are part of the revenue stream, but more significant are institutional donations. A NAN-sponsored policy conference on Capitol Hill in July was bankrolled by PepsiCo; participants got a free company logo notebook and nylon tote bag in the bargain. And the sponsor (i.e., donor) lists for NAN conferences over the years are corporation-heavy, including such names as Home Depot, Ford, Chrysler, Facebook, McDonald’s, Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, Macy’s, the News Corporation, Coca-Cola, Toyota, UPS, JPMorganChase, Anheuser-Busch, FedEx, Denny’s, Comcast, Colgate-Palmolive, American Honda, AT&T, and Verizon. [For more on the support of corporations and foundations for Sharpton’s organization, see Labor Watch’s sister publication, Foundation Watch, May 2010.]
These companies believe such generosity buys them immunity from boycotts, lawsuits, and adverse publicity. Of course, such payoffs often whet the shakedown artist’s appetite for more. (An appeaser, Churchill said, is one who “feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”) If anything can be said on behalf of such corporate timidity, at least it is rooted in self-interest more than ideological solidarity.
Sharpton’s shakedown operation was spotlighted last January in an article by Isabel Vincent and Melissa Klein of the New York Post:
Want to influence a casino bid? Polish your corporate image? Not be labeled a racist? Then you need to pay Al Sharpton.
For more than a decade, corporations have shelled out thousands of dollars in donations and consulting fees to Sharpton’s National Action Network. What they get in return is the reverend’s supposed sway in the black community or, more often, his silence. . . .
Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal met with the activist preacher after leaked emails showed her making racially charged comments about President Obama. . . . Pascal and her team were said to be “shaking in their boots” and “afraid of the Rev,” The Post reported. No payments to NAN have been announced, but Sharpton and Pascal agreed to form a “working group” to focus on racial bias in Hollywood. . . . Sharpton notably did not publicly assert his support for Pascal after the meeting—what observers say seems like a typical Sharpton “shakedown” in the making. Pay him in cash or power, critics say, and you buy his support or silence. . . .
Sharpton, who now boasts a close relationship with Obama and [New York City] Mayor Bill de Blasio, is in a stronger negotiating position than ever. “Once Sharpton’s on board, he plays the race card all the way through,” said a source who has worked with the Harlem preacher. “He just keeps asking for more and more money.”
A few of the examples cited in the Post article:
[National Action Network] had repeatedly and without success asked GM for donations for six years beginning in August 2000, a GM spokesman told The Post. Then, in 2006, Sharpton threatened a boycott of GM over the planned closing of an African-American-owned dealership in The Bronx. He picketed outside GM’s Fifth Avenue headquarters. GM wrote checks to NAN for $5,000 in 2007 and another $5,000 in 2008.
Sharpton targeted American Honda in 2003 for not hiring enough African-Americans in management positions. “We support those that support us,” Sharpton wrote to the company. “We cannot be silent while African-Americans spend hard-earned dollars with a company that does not hire, promote or do business with us in a statistically significant manner.” Two months later, car company leaders met with Sharpton, and Honda began to sponsor NAN’s events. The protests stopped.
Sharpton landed a gig as a $25,000-a-year adviser to Pepsi after he threatened a consumer boycott of the soda company in 1998, saying its ads did not portray African-Americans. He held the position until 2007.
Another category of institutional donor to Sharpton is the unions. Whether or not rank-and-file members are aware of it, their dues payments have helped make possible his many campaigns. And the flow of cash from a wide range of labor organizations into National Action Network’s coffers continues.
Jason Hart of Watchdog.org wrote in April:
Would you believe taxpayer money taken from government workers’ paychecks was sent to MSNBC host Al Sharpton? It was.
AFSCME donated $126,500 to Sharpton’s National Action Network, one of many examples of AFSCME spending member dues on polarizing “progressive” causes. In the government union’s 2014 report to the U.S. Department of Labor, AFSCME disclosed $64,585,115 in “Political Activities and Lobbying” spending.
The union also reported more than $1 million in donations to political nonprofits—including Sharpton’s—as “Contributions, Gifts and Grants.”
Last May, Jillian Kay Melchior reported in National Review Online:
Since PoliticsNation [Sharpton’s TV show] debuted on MSNBC on August 29, 2011, Al Sharpton’s nonprofit National Action Network has collected more than $2.38 million in contributions from unions, according to Department of Labor records. Meanwhile, Sharpton has often used his show to promote pro-labor viewpoints, also inviting union leadership on as guests.
“The civil-rights movement, the labor movement, the human-rights movement is all one thing,” Sharpton said in May 2014, echoing the Amalgamated Transit Union’s cries against cuts in transportation spending. Just two months prior, the Amalgamated Transit Union had given National Action Network a $15,000 contribution. . . .
In 2010, before Sharpton’s show debuted, National Action Network had offered “the opportunity to appear bi-monthly on Reverend Sharpton’s nationally syndicated radio show” in exchange for a donation of $100,000 or more, according to records from the nonprofit reviewed by National Review. A source close to Sharpton notes that “MSNBC’s rules are more stringent than syndicated radio shows” but also adds: “I think Sharpton’s providing a vehicle for pro-labor organizations gives him access to dollars, that’s for sure.”
Lee Saunders sits on the board of National Action Network, and he’s also president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers, which has given Sharpton’s nonprofit $541,500 in donations since PoliticsNation launched, according to Department of Labor records. Saunders has appeared twice on PoliticsNation in the last 16 months. . . .
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has also appeared twice in the past 16 months. AFT’s headquarters and New York Local 2 have given Sharpton’s nonprofit $445,000 since August 29, 2011, records show.
Service Employees International Union’s [Local 1199] president, George Gresham, has also made appearances on Sharpton’s show. [SEIU headquarters] has given National Action Network $436,133 over the past four years, the Department of Labor reports. . . .
Sharpton’s MSNBC program, PoliticsNation, recently lost its Monday-through-Friday slot and will now be relegated to Sunday mornings.
A 2014 investigation by Jason Hart for Media Trackers revealed that NAN received more than $3.6 million from unions during 2005-13, including about $1.16 million that had been donated in Fiscal Year 2013.
Al Sharpton’s National Action Network
The 20 largest union disbursements in 2013
Notes: All donations are from a union’s headquarters, unless otherwise indicated. Certain unions are repeat donors. Source: Jason Hart, “MSNBC Host Al Sharpton Rakes in Union Cash,” mediatrackers.org, April 11, 2014.
Al Sharpton virtually embodies demagoguery in American public life. For three decades, the New York City-based minister, politician, and talk show host has occupied the national stage, applying character assassination and political brinksmanship to achieving his ideal of social and racial “justice.” Through his nonprofit group, National Action Network (NAN), he has attracted extensive financial and moral support, much of it from unions.
Do the grassroots members of these union care, or even know, where their money is going?
Carl F. Horowitz heads the Organized Labor Accountability Project for the National Legal and Policy Center in Falls Church, Virginia. He is the author of the new book “Sharpton: A Demagogue’s Rise.” This article orginally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Labor Watch and is republished here with permission.