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FEC v. Sailors Union of the Pacific Political Fund


On January 6, 1986, the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California issued an opinion granting defendants' motion for summary judgment in FEC v. Sailors' Union of the Pacific Political Fund (Civil Action No. 84-7763-WWS). The court ruled that the separate segregated funds of three maritime unions, the Sailors' Union of the Pacific Political Fund, the Maritime Firemen's Union Political Fund and the Seafarers' Political Donation, were not affiliated. Accordingly, the defendant committees were not subject to a single $1,000 limit on contributions they made to California Governor Jerry Brown's 1982 Senate primary campaign. (Affiliated political committees, on the other hand, are subject to a single contribution limit on both contributions they make and receive. 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(5).)

On September 15, 1987, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling (Civil Action No. 86-1775).


On December 10, 1984, the FEC filed suit against the defendant political committees in the district court. The Commission asked the court to:

  • Declare that, by virtue of their affiliation, the committees had violated 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(2)(A) by, together, contributing more than $5,000 to Governor Brown's primary; and
  • Order the three committees to disclose their affiliation by amending their respective statements of organization.

In its suit, the FEC argued that the three committees' respective parent organizations were affiliated on two grounds:

  • The parent organizations were parts of the Seafarers' International Union (SIU).
  • The parent organizations were subject to SIU's control.

The defendant political committees contended, on the other hand, that the three unions were not controlled by SIU and, further, that the independent histories, structures and management of the unions demonstrated that they did not meet the criteria for affiliation.

District court ruling

The district court ruled that the member unions of the Seafarers' Union were an "association of independent unions" and, as such, were not affiliated. Accordingly, the unions' separate segregated funds were not affiliated political committees. The court found that "the [Seafarers] constitution embodies the rules that govern the relationship of these unions and those rules preserve their independence, a fact confirmed by the undisputed evidence of their past conduct." The court said that "other than having the power to collect dues, Seafarers has no power over the affairs of its member unions."

Appeals court ruling

The court decided that it would examine the organizational authority of Seafarers in order to determine whether its member unions were affiliated under 2 U.S.C. §441a(a)(5). The court, in making this decision, looked to the legislative history for guidance: "Various comments in the records of both the House and Senate suggest that...Congress intended to aggregate campaign contributions of locals of international unions but did not intend to aggregate contributions of member unions of labor federations."

The court then examined the relationship between the Seafarers' International Union and its member unions to determine whether the degree of control Seafarers exercised over them was closer to the highly intrusive authority of the United Steelworkers of America, the international union which the court had adopted as a model, or the less restrictive authority of a federation of unions, like the AFL-CIO. Acknowledging that Seafarers had powers beyond those of the AFL-CIO (the authority to regulate dues, audit members and appoint financial custodians for members), the court nevertheless judged that "the level of authority exercised over locals by traditional international unions like the Steelworkers far exceeds the level of control that Seafarers may exercise under its constitution." Noting that Seafarers' authority was more like the limited power of the AFL-CIO, the court concluded that two of the member unions were independent of Seafarers and that their separate segregated funds were not, therefore, subject to a common contribution limit.

The court pointed out that one might question the autonomy of the third union and Seafarers because one individual was president of both organizations. However, the court did not have to decide the question because the three member unions involved would still not be subject to a single contribution limit.

Source:   FEC RecordNovember 1987; February 1986; FEC v. Sailors' Union of the Pacific Political Fund, 624 F. Supp. 492 (N.D. Cal. 1986), aff'd, 828 F.2d 502 (9th Cir. 1987).