A Campaign Finance Ruling Turned to Labor's Advantage
by Steven Greenhouse
New York Times September 26, 2011
WASHINGTON - Labor unions are seizing on last year's
landmark Supreme Court campaign finance ruling to
change how they engage in politics, developing
ambitious plans to influence nonunion households in the
2012 election and counter corporate money flowing into
outside conservative groups.
Labor unions had initially assailed the ruling, known
as Citizens United, for allowing corporations and
wealthy donors to vastly expand their spending on
campaigns. That has indeed happened, with the
proliferation of a new generation of political action
committees, known as Super PACs, that can accept
But the ruling also changed the rules for unions,
effectively ending a prohibition on outreach to
nonunion households. Now, unions can use their
formidable numbers to reach out to sympathetic nonunion
voters by knocking on doors, calling them at home and
trying to get them to polling places. They can also
create their own Super PACs to underwrite bigger voter
identification and get-out-the-vote operations than
As part of this overhaul, Richard L. Trumka, president
of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., has said organized labor will be
more independent of the Democratic Party, sitting out
races where unions are disappointed with the Democratic
candidate's positions on issues important to them and
occasionally financing primary challengers to
The unions said they even intended to back a few
Republicans they judge to have been generally
supportive of their agenda, like Representative Steven
C. LaTourette of Ohio.
Mr. Trumka said unions were tired of Democratic
politicians taking them for granted after labor
shoveled millions of dollars into Democratic campaigns.
In distancing themselves, at least a bit, from the
Democrats, unions are becoming part of a trend in which
newly empowered outside groups build what are
essentially party structures of their own - in this
case, to somewhat offset the money flowing into
conservative groups that are doing the same thing.
Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican
National Committee, voiced skepticism about labor's
declaration of political independence, noting that
union leaders have often said similar things in the
past, before returning to the Democratic fold.
Labor leaders complain that after unions spent more
than $200 million to help elect President Obama and
Congressional Democrats in 2008, the Democrats did not
deliver on labor's priorities, including a stimulus
plan large enough to reinvigorate the economy and
legislation that would make it far easier to unionize
workers, central to labor's hopes of reversing its
In an interview, Mr. Trumka said the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
would initially inject $10 million into its still
unnamed Super PAC - far less than the $100 million that
some conservative Super PACs have - in large part to
build a year-round political structure for labor.
"The way we used to do politics is we'd set up a
structure six months before the election, and after
Election Day we'd dismantle it," Mr. Trumka said. "Now
we're going to have a full-time campaign, and that
campaign will be able to move, hopefully, from
electoral politics to issue advocacy and
accountability," meaning holding union-backed lawmakers
Unions are recasting how they do politics after labor
leaders reluctantly recognized their political
predicament: as union membership has shrunk in recent
years, it has become harder for unions - perhaps the
Democrats' most powerful ally - to elect the candidates
Michael A. Podhorzer, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s political
director, said the need for a new strategy became
evident last November. He said that even though unions
conducted a huge campaign operation in Ohio, the
labor-backed candidate for governor, Ted Strickland, a
Democrat, lost to the Republican, John R. Kasich.
"It became apparent that even in races where union
members voted overwhelmingly in support of a pro-worker
candidate, we could still lose," Mr. Podhorzer said.
"President Trumka asked, `How do we get programs that
win elections and not just put up a good fight?' "
Before the Citizens United ruling, unions were banned
from using dues money to reach out to nonmembers in
political campaigns, but now unions plan to campaign
among the 89 percent of Americans who do not belong to
unions. Union officials have long complained that when
their foot soldiers knocked on doors in, say, Milwaukee
or Columbus, Ohio, they wasted huge amounts of time
because they could visit only union members' homes and
often had to skip 90 percent of the houses. Now they
can knock on every door on a block.
Many Democrats wish that money would go directly to
party building or individual campaigns. Moreover, many
national Democrats fear that labor will focus on state
and local races - at the expense of presidential,
Senate and House races - to help assure union survival
after Republicans in Wisconsin and Ohio enacted
legislation sharply limiting the power of public-sector
Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, a
nonpartisan newsletter, said labor's political overhaul
had many national Democrats worrying that unions would
not be as generous and active on their behalf.
"Labor just seems to think that their challenge of
survival is so great that state-by-state and
ground-level fighting is more important than fighting
in U.S. House and Senate races and plowing a lot of
money into the presidential race," Mr. Cook said. "But
if we're looking at a situation where the Republicans
are going to hold the House and perhaps pick up a
majority of the Senate and have at least a 50-50 chance
of winning the presidency, I wonder whether labor will
have to re-engage at the national level."
One example of labor's more independent approach came
two weeks before Mr. Obama's jobs speech before a joint
session of Congress. At a breakfast with reporters, Mr.
Trumka criticized Mr. Obama as doing too little on jobs
and becoming a follower, not a leader, by letting
Congressional Republicans set the agenda.
He also warned that union members, dismayed with the
9.1 percent jobless rate and Mr. Obama's failure to do
more about it, might not be energized enough to vote
for him as many did in 2008. Union leaders like to
think such words helped persuade Mr. Obama to push for
a robust, $440 billion jobs program that is now before
"He's leading, and that's exactly what we asked," Mr.
Trumka said. "I think everyone will rally around this."
The Service Employees International Union, often called
the nation's most politically potent labor group, has
also revamped its political strategy in response to
Citizens United. This summer it dispatched thousands of
members to knock on hundreds of thousands of doors in
blue-collar neighborhoods in Cleveland, Milwaukee and a
dozen other cities, aiming to educate and mobilize
union and nonunion workers on economic issues.
It also helped organize a sit-in at the office of
Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin,
to protest his plan to make sizable cuts in Medicare
"We're solely focused right now on trying to get the
national debate focused on jobs and everybody paying
their fair share," said Mary Kay Henry, the S.E.I.U.
"It's important for us to keep our eyes on who's
standing in the way of working people," she added.
"It's not President Obama. It's the corporations and
the wealthy and the politicians they back who aren't
willing to pay their fair share and are applauding
efforts to dismantle government."
Like many union leaders, she said Citizens United was
far more advantageous to corporations than unions
because corporations have trillions of dollars in
assets at their disposal.
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