In the eyes of the AFL-CIO, a president can never lean too far leftward. But if President Obama hasn’t made all the right moves, he’s made enough of them to win its support. On March 13, the federation’s 57-member executive council met in a closed-door session in Orlando, Florida to unanimously endorse Barack Obama for re-election. “We will continue to have disagreements with him (Obama),” said federation President Richard Trumka after the vote. “But we’ve never doubted one thing: We’ve never doubted he’s a friend of working people and he’s the best out there.” In the ensuing weeks, his organization has been putting together the money and muscle to get results. The AFL-CIO is planning to mobilize 400,000 union members for a nationwide blitz to coax support for Democrats in federal, state and local elections. And they’re thinking well past November.
National Legal and Policy Center last September described at length the historic marriage between the Democratic Party and the Washington, D.C.-based AFL-CIO, whose 57 unions now represent a combined roughly 12 million workers, and why it can get rocky. The federation wants the president to go all out in support of policies and programs that advance union interests and expand government involvement in the economy. Yet President Obama, though sympathetic to such overtures, knows he can accomplish only so much in the face of strong public opposition to his health care law and other initiatives. That opposition became manifest in his party’s disastrous 2010 midterm elections. He now knows first hand the perils of aggressively playing to his progressive base while alienating swing voters.
That said, the union-Democrat partnership remains highly viable. For one thing, the unions have nowhere else to go. The Green Party or some similar vehicle for ecumenical Leftism would be too small to have a real impact. For another, the Democrats have ready-made votes among union members and other voting-age adults in their households. Nearly 60 percent of all union households voted for President Obama in 2008. Obama has made it a priority to raise that figure. He gave a rousing speech at the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh in 2009 where John Sweeney turned the president’s gavel over to Richard Trumka. He accommodated labor leaders early in 2010 to shape major (and expensive) provisions of the health care overhaul bill that Congress would pass weeks later. And in January, via legally questionable recess appointments, he filled two Democratic Party vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board with strong union partisans, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin. The AFL-CIO, in turn, spent more than $53 million during the 2010 election cycle, almost all of it on Democrats. Their leaders spoke to the president via telephone during that closed-door session in Orlando. Obama, noted American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) President Gerald McEntee, sounded “very engaged, very knowledgeable.”
Organized labor will need extra revenue this time around given the widespread diffidence toward Obama among key swing vote blocs. A recent AFL-CIO analysis of dozens of polls revealed that 50 percent of white voters without a college degree have an unfavorable opinion of Obama, up from 42 percent in September 2008. That kind of rise, though at first glance modest, could loom decisive in competitive populous states such as Florida and Ohio. “It’s going to be a close race,” admits AFL-CIO political director Mike Podhorzer. In absence of increased working-class support, “This is going to be a very difficult election for [Obama] to win.”
To make sure he will, labor leaders have been busy expanding their political infrastructure these past several weeks. Unions as a whole spent about $400 million in contributions to candidates and party organizations in the 2008 election cycle. They sense that this may not be enough to win this time around. The rise of unregulated “Super PACs” (political action committees) in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in January 2010 might be just the ticket. That ruling, among other things, allowed union-sponsored political organizations to contact residences of all voters, not just those of union members. True, the ruling gave corporate-sponsored Super PACs the same green light, something that enrages Trumka and other union leaders to no end. But it also may be a boon for unions because it allows them far more freedom to combine political campaigning and internal institution-building.
Specifically, Citizens United enhances union door-to-door canvasses, phone banks, social media and voter registration drives. Labor volunteers now posess the ability contact a wide range of people about their political preferences. And they’re not wasting any time getting the numbers. A pro-labor Super PAC, Workers’ Voice, is rolling out a online canvassing program enabling union officials to track, by zip code, member friends and other contacts. The group plans to include a “Click to Call” button enabling activists to make calls from home instead of having to make them from a phone bank. The campaign also would enable activists to create customized online postcards. “We’re never going to be able to compete with (corporate donations),” stated AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler at a press conference. “We’ll probably end up being outspent by 20 to 1. But the thing we can compete on is the people power, the boots on the ground.”
Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO is thinking well past this November. The federation is placing full-time political operatives in the key states of Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. This represents a break with the standard union practice of closing up shop once an election cycle is over. Trumka vows to put professional staff in more states, and possibly all 50.
Unions are putting their money where their mouths are. Workers’ Voice has raised a combined $5.4 million over the last two quarters and has $4.1 million in cash on hand. The Service Employees International Union, the lead organization in the AFL-CIO’s rival labor federation, Change to Win, recently donated $1.5 million in seed money to the main pro-Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA Action. And other unions, including the Teamsters, AFSCME and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, each have made six-figure donations to Democratic Party Senate or House PACs. The Teamster contribution led the way at $920,000.
The political power of Labor these days can’t be underestimated, especially in the states. Public-sector unions in Wisconsin have been spearheading the effort to toss Republican Governor Scott Walker out of office in a recall election scheduled for June 5. About 20,000 volunteers, many of them union members, managed to collect more than a million signatures to put the recall issue on the ballot. A fiscal austerity law last year pushed by Walker, “Act 10,” passed by the legislature and upheld by the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, limited collective bargaining rights. In Ohio, in response to similar legislation, “SB 5,” passed last year, unions mobilized 17,000 volunteers in support of a voter referendum to repeal the law. The repeal passed by 62 to 38 percent. And in California, unions again are vigorously opposing a ballot initiative that would create a “paycheck protection” law requiring unions to obtain prior approval from members before routing dues toward political purposes. Organized labor helped defeat similar efforts in that state in 1998 and 2005.
There is no reason why such activism can’t deliver a re-election for President Obama. The AFL-CIO’s Trumka, true to form, is framing his appeal with Occupy Wall Street-inspired rhetoric about “the rich.” In denouncing Obama’s presumptive Republican opponent this fall, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, he said: “Romney doesn’t have a clue about what working people go through every day. Everything he does is with the 1%. Everything he’s done helps the 1%.” By such logic, 99 percent of America supports the political aims of organized labor. Such histrionics aren’t likely to win many converts. But it won’t be for a lack of trying by hardcore union activists. Like the AFL-CIO’s Shuler says, they’ve got their boots on the ground.