Unions still playing a big, if different, role in elections

Their ranks may be constantly shrinking and their bargaining methods under fire from governors across the country, but labor unions seem still determined to play a big role in this election, though a slightly different role than they played in the past.

The AFL-CIO is sending out mailers targeting Republican candidates in six elections across the country. The Amalgamated Transit Union is registering voters at public transit stops and bringing them to the polls in Ohio. Even Nevada’s Culinary Union, which had threatened to sit out the election, has decided to work on behalf of Democrats.

That’s despite the fact that just 11.8% of wage and salary workers were represented by a union in 2011, down from 12.4% in 2008.

Some unions, unhappy with the Democratic Party’s decision to hold its convention in North Carolina, a right-to-work state, and with President Obama’s perceived silence on labor issues, said over the past year that they needed to play a role independent from either party.


But many have returned to Democrats despite those threats. Union members were a large and loud presence at the convention, and have formed the backbone of many voter outreach efforts in key states such as Ohio.

Part of that might be attributable to the fights unions had to organize around last year to defend their collective bargaining rights. In Ohio, for instance, they spent months organizing around a ballot measure, Issue 2, overturning a bill that would have limited collective bargaining rights, and won handily.

“What you saw last year with the fight in Ohio really energized and woke up a sleeping giant there that we’ve seen translated into increased activity this year,” said Brian Weeks, assistant director of political action at AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. In battleground states, he said, AFSCME had 30,000 new “member activists” participating in organizing activities.

Of course, some unions members are exhausted from all that organizing, and with the poor economy, their ranks are shifting as factories shut. Ohio, for instance, had 8,000 fewer union members in 2011 than it did in 2010.

“The $2.9 billion of cuts in education funding resulted in a great loss of membership, and fewer campaign contributions,” said Michele Prater, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Assn. “Obviously these are very tough economic times.”

Still, unhappiness with the Democratic Party has taken its toll on campaign contributions. The AFL-CIO, for instance, has donated just $336,000 to Democrats this year, compared with the $1.2 million it donated in 2008.

Instead, it is sending out mailers to voters criticizing Republican candidates’ positions on issues. One of the mailers, released Friday, says that Connecticut Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon has “slammed her workers with layoffs, no health benefits and sexual exploitation.”

Another, opposing Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who is seeking reelection, says that Brown “says he’s for the middle class but votes against us every time.”

Twitter: @AlanaSemuels