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Labor to the Rescue in Southern Senate Races? Not Exactly Labor to the Rescue in Southern Senate Races? Not Exactly

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Labor to the Rescue in Southern Senate Races? Not Exactly

Hagan(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

photo of Michael Catalini
February 24, 2014

Memo to some vulnerable Senate Democrats: Don't wait for labor to swoop in and save you with a chest full of money and a brigade of foot soldiers to get out the vote.

In a handful of the most contested Senate contests this cycle—including Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina—the AFL-CIO has conducted a cost-benefit analysis and the results are in: There just aren't enough union members in those states to make it worth the investment of scarce resources.

"I would love to say that North Carolina is a major target for our movement nationally, and everyone is gonna be playing big here," said North Carolina AFL-CIO President James Andrews. "But the reality is some will and some will not, and at the end of the day I'm rooting for wherever they're playing."


The South has long beguiled the labor movement when it comes to manufacturing, but right-to-work states and a conservative electorate have proven almost impenetrable to unions. Nationally, the union membership rate stands at 11.3 percent, according to government statistics, but that figure hovers around 5 percent in Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina, where Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, and Kay Hagan are waging tough reelection campaigns.

Labor leaders say it's nothing new to focus on states where membership is higher, and that, even though Democratic candidates are vulnerable across the South, those candidates are raising money and understand the threat. "Those states are states where we have relatively low union density," said AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer. "I think you'll see in other battleground Senate states like Michigan, Alaska, [and] Iowa a really vigorous union program."

The AFL-CIO sought to gain a Southern foothold with a strategy aimed at unionizing the growing number of auto plants below the Mason-Dixon line.

That strategy, though, suffered a blow recently when workers at a Tennessee Volkswagen plant rejected the United Auto Workers' foray into a Chattanooga factory. The vote was close, and union officials blame Republican political intrusion.

"If five years ago you even raised the idea that we came so close in a state like Tennessee it wouldn't have been credible," Podhorzer said. "Obviously, it would have been better if the workers had not been intimidated by the local politicians into believing this is gonna hurt their jobs."

Podhorzer said labor is not giving up on the South and cited West Virginia and Kentucky as examples where unions will ramp up efforts. Both states have higher-than-average union membership. New this cycle, he said, will be increased reliance on social networking to get the vote out. The union's super PAC, Workers' Voices, which has about $1.7 million cash on hand, will also play a role in those races.

Still, there are signs that labor is strategically choosing where to invest resources—and it's not the South. Last week, the union released a poll that surveyed voters in Democratic-leaning states with incumbent GOP governors. The union polled voters in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The results showed voter dissatisfaction with the economy and suggested support for a hike in the minimum wage.

The poll was conducted before the Chattanooga vote, union officials point out, and they argue that it shouldn't be read as an example of retrenchment in the South. "There's a difference between our continued work to organize workers in the South and an imperative brought on by the results of the 2010 election," Podhorzer said.

The AFL-CIO is a heavy hitter in politics, raising $4.7 million so far this cycle, with most of that money going to so-called 527 groups. It can also contribute mightily to the ground game on Election Day. But in some of the races that could determine which party controls the chamber, labor has played a smaller role financially. Of the roughly $5.8 million raised by Hagan's campaign and leadership PAC, only $74,000 came from labor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Labor accounted for about $166,000 of Landrieu's $6.3 million and about $186,000 of Pryor's $4.1 million.

The contribution might be a fraction of what other industries give, but any help at all—and particularly help that gets out the vote—can make the difference in tight elections, labor leaders argue. Pryor's race against Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is widely expected to be close, for example.

"I think if you go back and look at some of the numbers, how close the races are, we say we have 32,000 members but you could say it's 64,000 because of spouses," said Arkansas AFL-CIO President Alan Hughes. "I think we can still make an impact, especially doing ground work."

Even so, local labor leaders understand the position the national organization finds itself in.

"The reality is: Will they be here and pull out every stop to make this happen?" asked North Carolina's Andrews. "Or will they be in Ohio or Pennsylvania? I understand that. I make those kinds of decisions every day."

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