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Unions flex revived political might for Labor Day weekend

Demonstrators march during a union protest outside the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Union members plan to be out in force in battleground states this weekend.
Demonstrators march during a union protest outside the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Union members plan to be out in force in battleground states this weekend.Patrick Semansky / AP

Even as their ranks thin, labor unions are swinging newfound political muscle, sending tens of thousands of activists into battleground states to canvass for President Barack Obama this Labor Day weekend.

Bolstered by the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, the labor movement is aiming to show its election year relevancy, reaching out to an audience beyond the nation's 14.8 million card-carrying union members.

While still a critical player in industries such as auto manufacturing, the labor movement is a shadow of what is once was, representing just 11.8 percent of U.S. workers as of 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is down from 20 percent as recently as 1983 and 35 percent when the movement was at its peak in the mid-1950s.

But every four years unions demonstrate their political power through the "ground game" of going door-to-door and mobilizing voters. The high court's decision, widely seen as a huge win for corporate interests, also has been a game changer for labor, allowing unions for the first time to use funds and manpower to zero in on non-union households.

“The ground game is as old as politics. Doesn’t mean it’s any less important, but they have given us a very new ground game,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “Part of that is reaching out to non-union families who are sympathetic to labor’s political positions.

“The numbers (for organized labor) have undeniably declined. But its ground game will be central to the Democrats’ fortunes in November – and very powerful in a close vote. So labor is playing a critical role particularly as the money pours into the Republican coffers,” Shaiken added.

Last week union members launched a door-knocking campaign by visiting 640,000 homes, and activity “will be heavier” in six key states this weekend and will grow as Election Day nears, said Jeff Hauser, spokesman for the AFL-CIO.

America’s largest union federation is powering its mass mobilization through a fresh alliance with MoveOn.Org, a 7 million-member liberal advocacy group. The collaboration was hatched, Hauser said, because labor’s message is “being crushed financially” by Republicans who are “dialing up a handful of billionaires, cashing some checks and paying a media consultant to produce hit ads” slamming Obama.

The unions, still vastly outspent by corporate political action committees, hope to outflank their political opponents through a smarter ground game, galvanized at least in part through digital media, Hauser said.

Labor unions had made about $70 million in contributions this election season as of June 30, with 89 percent going to Democrats, according to the nonpartisan In the 2008 season unions contributed $89.5 million. 

In contrast corporate interests have made hundreds of millions in donations, with the majority going to Republican candidates. For example:

  • Finance, real estate and insurance companies: 64 percent of their $372 million has gone to Republicans since 2010.
  • Energy companies: 77 percent of their $79.5 million in political contributions has gone to Republicans this election cycle.
  • Construction companies: 69 percent of their $69.9 million has gone to Republicans.
  • AgriBusiness: 72 percent of its $50.2 million has gone to Republicans.
  • Transportation companies: 73 percent of its $42.8 million has gone to Republicans.
  • Retail sales, food, beverage and lodging companies: 56 percent of their $239.4 million has gone to Republicans.

The labor movement’s shrinkage is exactly why the AFL-CIO has unleashed squadrons of activists onto the campaign trail: simply to bolster its influence via a showy display of force, contends Justin Wilson, managing director of the Center for Union Facts. The group describes itself not as anti-union but as standing against “union officials’ abuse of power.”

“The back story to this is the unions are working overtime to try to maintain a degree of relevancy inside the Democratic Party,” Wilson said.

At the same time, the economic downturn prompted union chiefs to “come hat in hand” to Democratic leaders, spending precious political capital to help push through the 2009 bailout for automotive giants, Wilson added.

“The best way of understanding this is: Generally speaking, political power folks try to downplay their role in an election. You don’t see the president of a large corporation touting the amount of money they spend in PAC contributions. They do it quietly. They raise it among their members. They let the (Federal Election Commission) do their reporting. But you don’t see them putting out press releases saying ‘GE is proud to be giving $140,000!’ ,” Wilson said.

“The unions decided that they wanted to telegraph to the administration that they spend much more than the administration probably knew. Of course they do it behind the scenes but they’re also doing it in a public manner – in a certain extent to guilt-trip the administration.”