U.S. labor-union leaders are taking advantage of a Supreme Court ruling they are fighting to overturn in their drive to elect Democrats this year.
The AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, will send more than 400,000 volunteers to campaign for President Barack Obama, aided by a decision known as Citizens United that removed limits on independent spending by corporations and unions.
Before the 2010 ruling, labor unions were able to make donations only through regulated political action committees, which collect voluntary donations from employees and have reporting requirements and limits on disbursements. The decision lets unions spend from their treasuries, taking restrictions off using member dues in political campaigns.
“This will make us far more efficient and it is going to make the electorate more and more informed,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at a Washington news conference July 12.
The ruling means labor groups are now able to pay members to campaign in neighborhoods among all residents -- not just union homes -- get people to the polls and push their message. Limits remain on donating to candidates and parties.
With many union members living in toss-up states such as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, labor’s increased efficiency might make a difference.
Union leaders have said the court’s ruling went too far, giving wealthy donors too much say in elections. Billionaires such as Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chief Executive Officer Sheldon Adelson, who with his family donated more than $20 million to a super-PAC supporting Republican Newt Gingrich’s failed campaign, and Koch Industries Inc. executives Charles and David Koch, who have ties to Americans for Prosperity, which financed efforts to limit unions in Wisconsin, can write multimillion dollar checks. Such efforts drown out the contributions of the middle class, according to the unions.
The AFL-CIO’s executive council is pressing to overturn the decision. International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James Hoffa said the ruling is part of a “war on workers.” Leaders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said the decision is an example of politicians targeting working Americans “as never before.”
“No one hated the idea” when the unions were spending hundreds of millions from their PACs, Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for the Workplace Fairness Institute, a Washington-based ground funded by companies that opposes unions, said in an interview. “All of a sudden it is sensational outrage.”
While unions paid for television commercials and displayed political signs in previous elections, all the cash came from the voluntary donations sent to a political committee.
The ruling will let union campaigners expand the ground they cover, Jamie Horwitz, a labor consultant who has worked with AFL-CIO groups, such as the Transport Workers Union, said in an interview. Union workers previously had to avoid homes of non-union members, and were barred from distributing campaign materials to people while walking between targeted houses because union case could only be used for member-to-member outreach.
“We will be able to out-organize and have an advantage on the ground in terms of being able to talk to real voters directly,” said Tim Burga, president of Ohio’s AFL-CIO. “We’ll be in working-class neighborhoods where we want to be, where there are opportunities to have face to face conversations with working people.”
Labor groups’ cash donations so far this year trail the so-called super PACs set up by candidates and interest groups. Workers’ Voice, the AFL-CIO’s super PAC that targets voter turnout and minorities, raised $3.4 million through six months this year. By comparison, American Crossroads, a group co-founded by Republican adviser Karl Rove, reported $16 million in five months this year.
The Citizens United decision will free labor leaders to counter anti-Obama ads from PACs that are “polluting the airwaves,” Trumka said. Union members can visit a voter at home, assess concerns, follow up with more information and on election day can provide reminders to vote, all financed by union cash. Before Citizens United, union were barred from spending cash on such activities, he said.
Results for the unions have been mixed after the decision. Labor groups last year helped win a referendum overturning an Ohio law aimed at limiting collective bargaining. In June, the unions lost an effort to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who backed reductions in the bargaining rights of state workers.
Democrats may be unable to keep up with Republican spending. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who ran against Walker in the recall election, was outspent by more than 9-to-1. Additionally, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and party committees said they raised $106 million in June, compared with $71 million for Obama and Democratic Party committees.
The Citizens United court decision is unlikely to vanish. The Supreme Court last month affirmed the decision, throwing out Montana’s 100-year-old ban on corporate campaign spending.
Any gains from Citizens United may not become evident for several years, or a couple of two-year election cycles, Gary Chaison, a professor Industrial Relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, said in an interview. In swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania with many union members, increased labor participation could be pivotal, Chaison said.