Labor unions rethinking their role in politics


As top union leaders gather in Florida on Tuesday to determine labor’s political strategy this year, the influential AFL-CIO appears poised to endorse President Obama’s reelection — despite some lingering dissatisfaction with his record.

But the way in which unions back him and other Democrats this year is likely to take a very different form than in past campaigns.

Concluding they need to be more independent of the Democratic Party, many unions are increasingly financing their own efforts instead of writing large checks to candidates and the party.


The shift in tactics is already apparent in this election season: Labor political action committees gave federal Democratic candidates and committees $21 million last year, a drop of 20% from the same period in the 2008 election, according to data provided by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Several major unions, as well as the AFL-CIO itself, now have their own “super PACs,” independent political organizations that can raise unlimited funds.

A broader philosophical debate is also underway as union leaders discuss whether they can afford to invest the estimated $400 million overall that organized labor spent on Obama and congressional Democrats four years ago. Labor is also confronting a rash of Republican-backed efforts in the states — including California — that would make it harder for unions to organize and use their political clout.

Many argue that labor needs a permanent presence in communities across the country to beat back such attacks, even at the cost of devoting less money to electing candidates. Such an approach could still benefit Obama and other Democrats, but would not directly finance party activities.

That change is already underway in groups such as the mass transit workers’ Amalgamated Transit Union, which has shifted “the culture of [the] union from … political activity to broader coalition building,” said President Larry Hanley.

“We need to have some reasonable amount of resources devoted to building a movement for the long term,” added Seth Rosen, vice president of the Communications Workers of America’s Midwestern region, who has spent the last year battling anti-union measures in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

It remains to be seen how these changing political tactics — combined with a deflated feeling about Obama’s tenure in some parts — will affect the deployment of union members, a vital part of the Democratic effort to turn out voters. Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, labor can run get-out-the-vote operations targeting all voters, not just union members.


“Fully mobilized, they can be a major factor,” said Steve Rosenthal, a Democratic strategist and former political director of the AFL-CIO. “Are the rank-and-file leaders going to be jazzed; are they going to do the work of talking to members? That’s what makes the difference.”

Union leaders acknowledge there remains some frustration with the White House. Obama’s decision to extend tax cuts for the wealthy and sign a free-trade agreement with Colombia, among other measures, rankled labor — as did his campaign’s decision to hold the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina, home to some of the nation’s strictest anti-union laws.

But those disappointments have paled as GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has swiped at “Big Labor” and Republican legislators have pushed a spate of anti-union measures in the states. Unions helped decisively beat back an effort in Ohio last fall to curtail collective bargaining rights for public employees, a measure that local leaders said greatly energized its membership. In California, unions are gearing up to fight a ballot initiative this fall that would make it difficult for labor to fund political campaigns with member dues.

At the same time, Obama has pleased labor by pushing a more populist agenda in the last six months.

“We definitely did notice and appreciate the shift somewhere around last Labor Day,” said Thea Lee, the AFL-CIO’s deputy chief of staff. “The pro-worker, pro-jobs tone was a little bit overdue but always welcome.”

President Larry Cohen of Communications Workers of America, one of the 57 members of the AFL-CIO’s executive council, said he was confident that the council would endorse Obama during a meeting set for Tuesday.


In 2008, the AFL-CIO mobilized 250,000 volunteers to back Obama and other pro-union candidates, the biggest campaign in its history. Union PACs also gave $73 million directly to candidates, 92% of which went to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Since then, federation President Richard Trumka has called for labor’s increased independence.

“If you write a lot of checks to candidates, you end up with nothing but cashed checks, or maybe a little bit more if they win,” Lee said.

Instead, Lee and other union leaders said, labor needs a long-term political presence not only to fight anti-union Republicans, but to keep in line Democrats who rely on labor support.

“In 2008, everything was about electing the president,” said Bob Master, legislative and political director for the CWA’s northeastern region. “There was a belief that if we just got rid of George Bush and had control of Congress, it would be the New Deal revisited, labor’s heyday. That turned out not to be the case.”

That debate is now roiling the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which under President Gerald McEntee has been one of the most influential players in national politics.


The union plans to spend as much as $100 million this year on its political program, largely to benefit Obama and other Democrats at the local, state and national levels. In January, AFSCME inserted itself into a GOP presidential primary for the first time, spending $1 million in Florida on a television ad attacking Romney.

That money could have been better spent mobilizing retirees in the state, said Danny Donohue, president of New York’s Civil Service Employees Assn., an affiliate of AFSCME, who is challenging current AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders in a vote this June to succeed McEntee.

Donohue said that under McEntee the union had become too “Washington-centric.”

“That’s not where our members live, where our members work,” he said. “Clearly we want Obama elected, but we know we need to have a greater emphasis on state and local campaigns.”

Ricky Feller, AFSCME’s associate political director, countered that the union had “a strong tradition of delving into state and local races and … putting boots on the ground.”

But the union also sees the need for a robust presidential effort, he said, adding simply: “It’s the White House.”