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 unlimited donations.
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 ever before.
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 Democratic incumbents.
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 decline.
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 accountable.
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 they support.
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 unions.
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 Congress.
“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 spending.
“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. president.
“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.
This article, “A Campaign Finance Ruling Turned to Labor's Advantage,” originally appeared at The New York Times.
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