Public and Private Interest Groups

Standard 4.13: Public and Private Interest Groups

Examine the influence of public and private interest groups in a democracy, including policy organizations in shaping debate about public policy. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T4.13]

FOCUS QUESTION: What Roles do Public and Private Interest Groups, Political Action Committees, and Labor Unions Play in American Politics?

"Lobbying" by OpenClipart-Vectors is licensed under Pixabay License

This standard looks at the ways Special Interest Groups, Political Action Committees, and Labor Unions seek to influence public policy. Each of these organizations engages in lobbying to influence governmental action or policies through oral or written communications and through spending large amounts of money to support candidates and causes.

Money and lobbying can be very effective in enacting or changing public policy. In 2018, there were 11,651 registered lobbyists in the United States and total lobbying spending was $3.49 billion (Lobbying Database, OpenSecrets.org). Learn more about Lobbyists from OpenSecrets.org.

Special Interest groups and Political Action Committees engage in policy lobbying while supporting candidates for local, state, and federal offices through cash contributions. In addition to those activites, Labor Unions engage in direct action for change or strikes. A strike is an “organized stoppage or slow down of work by employees” intended to force employers to meet the strikers’ demands for change (Denver Classroom Teachers Association, 2019, p. 1). As established by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, employees have a Right to Strike for economic benefits or against unfair labor practices.

Money is a key to action for all these organizations. Being able to spend large sums of money means the voices of some public and private interest groups are heard more often and more directly than the opinions of everyday people.

How do public and private interest groups function within the United States system of government? The modules for this standard explore that question. 

1. INVESTIGATE: Special Interest Groups, Political Action Committees (PACs and SuperPACs), and Labor Unions

Special Interest Groups

Special interest groups, also called "pressure groups," are organizations formed to influence public policy and advance the beliefs and interests of the group’s members.

Special interest groups regularly seek financial contributions from their members and use those funds to give political donations to politicians who are favorable to their point of view. Interest groups also use "lobbying" as a means of reaching their goals. Lobbying involves using pressure, or other means, to convince policymakers to pass legislation benefiting the groups or its causes.

Economic interest groups have a primary aim to improve the economy, including Labor groups, Professional groups, Business groups, and Farm groups. Cause groups direct their efforts to achieve particular benefits to their members such as Veterans' groups, religious organizations, and disability support groups.

Suggested Learning Activity

  • Investigate
    • Select an issue from the following list of Special National Interest Groups from OpenSecrets.org, an organization that seeks to inform and engage Americans by exposing disproportionate or undue influence on public policy by special interests.
    • Examine the special interest groups (SIGs) related to that issue to understand why they seek to influence policymakers. What did you uncover?

Online Resources for Interest Groups

Political Action Committees (PACs and SuperPACs)

Political Action Committees (PACs) are organizations that collect and donate funds to political candidates. PACs can be formed by corporations, labor unions, trade unions, and various groups of people. They are widely used in elections for the House of Representatives, Senate, and President, and in some state elections.

Symbol for the Stand with Orlando Campaign

Symbol for the Stand with Orlando Campaign by the MoveOn.org Interest Group 
Credit: Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

The first PAC was formed in 1944 by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (a labor union group) to help reelect President Franklin D. Roosevelt. To reduce the amount of influence of money on elections, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 limited the amount of money a person, group, or corporation could give to a candidate. The legislation actually had the opposite effect as more PACs sought many smaller donations from more people. While there were about 600 PACs in the early 1970s, today there are more than 4,600 (What is a PAC? Open Secrets.org).

While in the past political action committees were created by businesses or unions, today there are many types of PACs established by politicians and interested citizens who want to raise money for political purposes. The 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision changed the rules about how candidates can raise money to run for office. This decision established that corporations and organizations have the constitutional right to spend money to promote candidates and their policies.  

Two new terms—Super PACs and Dark Money—have dramatically changed how individuals and groups go about influencing public policy and participating in elections:  

Suggested Learning Activities

Online Resources for PACS and Campaign Finance

Labor Unions

A labor union is an organization of workers who negotiate with employers to gain better wages, benefits, working conditions, and on-the-job safety. Unions also engage in political activities including endorsing candidates and lobbying for the passage of legislation.  

The first U.S. labor union is reported to have been the Federal Society of Journeyman Cordwainers (cordwainers were shoemakers) in Philadelphia in 1791. More than 225 years later in 2020, there are 14.6 million union members with another 1.8 million workers covered by a union contract (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). The first union of working women was the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, formed in 1844 by women who worked in the mills in Lowell, Massachusetts.

African Americans were involved in labor unions and labor actions from before the Civil War (African Americans and the American Labor Movement). Isaac Myers was one of the early Black labor leaders. He founded the Caulkers Association, one of the first Black trade unions in 1838 (caulkers were important workers in the shipbuilding industry). In 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters led by A. Philip Randolph became the first African American labor union to be recognized by the American Federation of Labor. Randolph was aided greatly by the organizing efforts of Rosina Corrothers Tucker who founded the Ladies' Auxiliary (Women's Economic Councils) also in 1925.

Unions use collective bargaining to negotiate contracts with employers. Collective bargaining involves a give and take as both sides advance proposals and work to achieve a compromise acceptable to everyone. When collective bargaining fails to achieve results, unions may restore to a strike. A strike is a labor action where workers refuse to go back to work until progress is made in meeting their demands for change.  

1975 U.S. Stamp

1975 U. S. Stamp
(Credit:  U.S. Postal Service | Public Domain)

Many important events in U.S. history involve the causes and consequences of labor strikes. A Labor Unions and Radical Political Parties in the Industrial Era wiki page has material on key moments in labor history including the Lowell Mill Girls, The Great Railway Strike of 1877 (see below), the Atlanta Washerwoman Strike of 1881, Bread and Roses Strike (1912), the New York Shirtwaist Makers Strike of 1909, the Knights of Labor, the Haymarket Riot of 1886, the American Federation of Labor headed by Samuel Gompers, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union.

Freight train

Freight train, under a guard of United States marshals, at East St. Louis, Illinois
Credit: Image from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 10, 1886/Public Domain

Suggested Learning Activities

A sleeping car porter

A sleeping car porter employed by the Pullman Company at Union Station in Chicago, Illinois, 1942
Credit: Photography by Jack Delano/Library of Congress | Public Domain

Online Resources for Labor Unions

2. UNCOVER: The Pullman Strike of 1894 and the History of Labor Day

The Pullman Strike was a labor action and boycott that caused a nationwide railroad crisis in June and July of 1894. The largest worker strike of the 19th century, it featured key historical figures, pressing social issues, and the changing roles of labor unions and big businesses in American society.

National Guard troops firing on Pullman strikers 1894
Credit:  Harper's Weekly | Public Domain

The strike began as a walkout by workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in the town of Pullman just south of Chicago, Illinois. George Pullman was an industrial entrepreneur who gained fame and fortune by developing luxury passenger and dining cars for railroad passengers.

In the decades after the Civil War, Pullman employed former slaves as porters at minimal wages in his railroad cars, becoming the largest employer of African Americans in the country at the time. He made huge profits by leasing Pullman cars to railroad companies and he also received a portion of the money the railroads charged passengers for riding in them. At the time of the strike, Pullman had made an enormous fortune.

Interior of Pullman Palace Sleeping Car

Interior of Pullman Palace Sleeping Car
Credit:  Photo by Carleton E.Watkins | Public Domain

The workers who built the passenger cars lived in a company town controlled by Pullman. He paid very low wages and charged very high rents. The striking workers were members of a newly formed American Railway Union whose President was Eugene V. Debs. A former railroad fireman, Debs was an outspoken political activist who was the Socialist Party candidate for President of the United States in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920 (Debs and the Socialist Party received 6 percent of the national vote in the 1912 Presidential election).

Led by Debs, the American Railway Union voted to boycott Pullman cars. 125,000 workers went on strike, shutting down many of the nation’s rail lines. After George Pullman refused to negotiate, President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops to confront the strikers. Violence followed, 30 workers died, Eugene Debs was arrested, and the strike ended. But popular opinion turned against Pullman and toward Debs and the Socialist Party’s fight for worker rights and economic justice.  

To quiet potential public unrest, President Cleveland established Labor Day as a holiday for workers. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. There is more information about the history of Labor Day and its connections to the Pullman Strike of 1894 from Samuel Gompers’ 1910 article The Significance of Labor Day and Labor Day's Violent Beginnings, a YouTube video from CNNMoney.

Suggested Learning Activities

Online Resources for the Pullman Strike

3. ENGAGE: What Role Does Money Play in Our Elections?

In present day American politics, the candidate who spends the most money usually wins in races for Congress (Koerth, 2018). But the story is more complicated than a wealthy individual or a well-funded group buying an election by spending the most money.

The Assemblyman Is Perplexed

The Assemblyman Is Perplexed, Political Cartoon (1891)
Credit: Wikimedia Commons The Wasp (San Francisco) Vol. 26, 1891 | Public Domain

Looking more deeply, researchers found that while money alone is not always the deciding factor in who wins, it often determines who gets to run for office. A typical member of Congress has a median income of $1.1 million (Senator: $3.2 million; Representative: $900,000) which is 12 times richer than the typical American household (Quartz, February 12, 2018). Put simply, those who are wealthy can afford to run for state and national office, so they do. In many instances, potential candidates who do not have lots of money are unable to afford to seek a political office.

Being a candidate, especially at the state and national level, requires large amounts of money. According to the election monitoring organization OpenSecrets.org, the total cost of elections in 2016 was $2,386,876,712 for the Presidential race and $4,124,304,874 for all the races for Congress. $1.2 million was the average amount spent by a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016. Republicans and incumbents spent more than challengers. The more a challenger spends, the more likely they win.

Nationally, candidates have Four Ways to Fund a Presidential Campaign. They can rely on either:

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Collect and Analyze Data
    • Explore the Distribution of Money in the Presidential 2016 elections.
      • Which presidential candidates used outside money or candidate committee money on their campaign?
    • View Lobbyist spending over the course of over 15 years. 
      • Browse the tabs to view top spenders and ranked sectors.
    • Then, consider what role does money play in our elections?
  • Investigate and Report
    • Examine Presidential Tax Returns from Richard Nixon in 1974 to Barack Obama in 2009, as well as those of Franklin Roosevelt and the 2010 presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Presidents began releasing tax returns in the 1970's. Neither President Donald Trump nor Presidential candidate Gerald Ford (in 1976) released their tax returns (Politifact Wisconsin, 2016).
      • What conclusions do you draw from the tax returns?  
      • Should presidential candidates or candidates for other public offices be required to release tax returns? Why or why not?

Online Resources for Money in Politics

Standard 4.13 Conclusion

Public and private interest groups play significant roles in American politics. INVESTIGATE looked at how interest groups, political actions committees, and labor unions seek to influence public policy through lobbying, political campaign contributions, and, in the case of unions, direct action strikes. UNCOVER reviewed the Pullman Strike of 1894 and its connections to the nation’s Labor Day holiday. ENGAGE asked what role does money play in our elections.

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