March 11 (Bloomberg) -- The AFL-CIO is planning an expanded effort to mobilize nonunion workers in this year’s elections to help Democrats retain Senate control and to erode Republicans’ majority in the House, the labor federation’s president said.
It’s a strategy that hinges on the growing clout of Working America, an 11-year-old affiliate for workers who aren’t union members, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said. It also continues to capitalize on labor’s ability to raise unlimited funds for some political activities as a result of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling.
“We will be reaching out to a greater number of nonunion people this year than we’ve ever done before,” Trumka said today at Bloomberg Government meeting with reporters and editors in Washington. “We will be using our normal mechanism for union members but we’ll be reaching out to nonunion members to educate them to mobilize them to get them to the polls as well.”
Trumka said the AFL-CIO hasn’t given up on key 2014 policy priorities despite inaction in Congress. That includes a pending measure to raise the nation’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, a long-term bill funding highway construction and mass transit, an extension of unemployment benefits and a rewrite of immigration law.
Pressure will intensify on House Republicans to take some action before the election, in particular on the minimum wage because it enjoys popular support, he said. An increase to $10.10 would lift 3.5 million minorities out of poverty.
“That’s a lot of voters and so you’ll see that pressure being put on them,” Trumka said. “And they’ll either continue to say no to a raise in the minimum wage, no to an extension of unemployment insurance, no to investment in infrastructure, no to bringing the country ahead, or they’ll have to say yes to something.”
Trumka said the Working America affiliate stands to be a powerful force in the elections. It now has about 3.2 million members, according to the group, and Trumka said those members are heavily Democratic. In 2012, 76 percent of them voted for President Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, he said.
“In the last election our education mobilization program with them was actually very successful,” Trumka said.
Democrats have a 55-45 majority in the Senate, and in the House Republicans control 232 seats and Democrats hold 199 with four vacancies.
Trumka was critical of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which removed limits on corporate and union independent election spending. He said it allows more free speech to those with more to spend.
At the same time, he said the decision provides labor unions with a “new mechanism” to reach out to non-union workers. In the past, he said, unions were restricted to approaching only union members using cash from their own coffers.
Unions have greatly expanded their reach to both their members and nonunion workers through outside groups in the four years since the high court’s decision. The AFL-CIO operates the Workers’ Voices PAC that that raised $21.9 million to help get out the vote among non-union workers in the 2012 elections, and it’s raised $5.2 million so far for this year’s contests, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
Other unions gearing up for big spending efforts through super-PACs include the Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association, while the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners is behind a committee called Working for Working Americans. Taken together, those three super-PACs have raised $11.3 million so far for TV ads, voter outreach and other efforts in 2014.
On immigration, Trumka said the labor federation has identified “nine or ten” Republicans that leaders see as most likely to work with Democrats to force Republican leaders to allow a vote on legislation allowing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. The Senate acted on its own rewrite of immigration law last year, and House Speaker John Boehner has ruled out action on a broad bill in his chamber this year.
While it’s rare for House lawmakers to buck their party’s leadership and help force a vote with the minority, Trumka said union members will target as many as 17 Republicans who might be swayed -- and if they won’t it will become an election issue.
“I happen to believe that the American people want them to stand up and do something, and if they don’t I think there will be a price,” Trumka said. “We’re trying to make sure that the price that they pay is as high as it can be.”
On the minimum wage, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid earlier this month postponed a planned debate on legislation raising the wage to $10.10 an hour, and bill sponsor Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said that was to give labor unions more time to organize support.
Some Senate Democrats seeking re-election in November -- including Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana -- said they have concerns about lifting it by that much. Trumka said he won’t comment about whether the federation would accept a lower amount, and expressed confidence that the Senate will approve the boost because labor has public opinion on its side.
“There’s a national drumbeat out there to wage raises,” he said. “That happens every day. It’s at the front of worker’s lists. It’s the first thing they talk about not the last thing they talk about.”
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