The 1980s was not a good decade for organized labor. Although Ronald Reagan was the first former labor union head to serve as president, he dismantled the Air Traffic Controllers Union in his first term. An overwhelming majority of unions endorsed Walter Mondale in the Democratic primaries in 1984, but nearly one- third of union members voted for Reagan in the general election. Union membership declined throughout the decade. Corporations increasingly fired striking workers and replaced them with nonunion labor. When collective bargaining did take place, it frequently resulted in a "give-back" of benefits or salary. Corporate PACs increased in number throughout the eighties. It was clearly a better decade for the business community than for organized labor.
Despite these setbacks, labor PACs continued to play an important role in the financing of American elections. During the 1980s, labor funds provided crucial seed money to Democratic nonincumbent candidates. The direct contributions by the AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education (COPE) in the 1990 election cycle totaled more than $830,000, and many PACs associated with member unions made even larger contributions. The true value of communications by the AFL-CIO to its members on behalf of candidates, and of the volunteer activities of union members, is difficult to estimate.
Although COPE is not the largest of the many labor PACs, it is the most influential. A COPE endorsement can help persuade other PACs to contribute, and when COPE puts its entire financial and nonfinancial resources into a race, it is formidable.