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Labor’s Different Direction

Like other progressive groups frustrated with the current state of politics, the AFL-CIO wants to be less beholden to the Democratic Party.


Turning outward: Will the AFL-CIO focus its efforts on the broader public?(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

After years of working closely with the Democratic Party, the nation’s largest labor federation wants its space. The AFL-CIO is becoming a more independent operator, aggressively building a permanent campaign infrastructure that will give less money to the party and more to its favored candidates.

In many ways, it’s less of a divorce than an open marriage. The union wants more say in which candidates get its money and more control over its message; it plans to aggressively target nonunion voters in addition to its traditional labor audience.


Like many frustrated progressive groups, the House of Labor is reevaluating its politics heading into the 2012 elections. Unions are still stinging from Democrats’ failure to pass such high-profile labor priorities as immigration reform, a public health care option, and a measure to make organizing easier. As one strategist put it, labor was “voting for change in ’08, and [members are] not getting quite the change that they bargained for. Now, the question is, ‘What do we do about that?’ ”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka believes that the answer is to create a year-round structure that will help elect labor’s allies and then hold them accountable to the workers who put them in power. “With our friends, we’ll be able to use it to help them more. With acquaintances, they’ll probably get what they gave us—a ‘We love you’ and a handshake,” Trumka said in an interview.

A big part of that new structure includes a super political action committee that can raise money in unlimited amounts to communicate with voters across the country—and not just union members. Before the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, if a union wanted to expressly advocate for or against a candidate, it had to spend PAC money, which it could raise in increments of no more than $5,000. Unions could, however, raise and spend money in unlimited amounts to talk with their own members.


But now, thanks to Citizens United, labor can bring those same economies of scale to bear when communicating with the voting public. That will allow the AFL-CIO to be more of a factor in states with fewer union members.

Starting with a dozen or so battleground states, Trumka said he plans to build a 50-state operation funded by the super PAC and the AFL-CIO. What races will the operation target? How much money will the super PAC raise? How will the federation split its cash among the presidential and congressional races? So far, Trumka has been mum on specifics. Many of those questions will likely be addressed at an executive committee meeting on Sept. 12, but a former AFL-CIO official said that the union will need to raise a minimum of $10 million to $15 million to be effective.

What Trumka made clear is that his union plans to give less money than it once did to the Democratic Party and independent committees. In other words, the union will take back some of the leverage it relinquished when it sent more of its cash directly to the party. In effect, the AFL-CIO is cutting out the middleman.

Former Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., “had no incentive to listen to union members in her state, because she knew, come hell or high water, that the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] was coming in behind her. But if she has to depend on the [AFL-CIO] PAC coming in itself, then that gives them a lot more leverage,” said former federation official Eddie Vale.


Lincoln, whose pro-business positions often drew progressive ire, survived a primary challenge from the left by then-Lt. Gov. Bill Halter last year but lost to Republican John Boozman. Some labor leaders argue that even though Lincoln won her primary, Halter’s bid sent a message to other Democrats who have strayed from labor’s agenda that they could face a primary fight. An independent campaign structure and a super PAC will enable the AFL-CIO to more easily reward friends and punish foes inside the Democratic Party.

“I think it says to Democrats institutionally that people are extremely concerned that despite the fact that unions in the last decade have been extremely supportive of Democratic candidates, people feel [that officeholders are] not accountable to the issues that they promise our members when they run,” said Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union. “And I would hope it would lead to a more issue-based endorsement process and much more use of primary elections as an accountability tool.”

Or as one AFL-CIO official put it, “Propping up outside organizations has not proven to be an effective political strategy, because once you’ve spent the money it’s out the door, and you’ve not built anything permanent.”

But creating something permanent has its challenges, not the least of which is funding a 365-day operation. Keeping resources flowing in nonelection years—when the campaign heat cools and interest wanes—has always been tough. And, of course, some turf wars are inevitable. Local union affiliates accustomed to holding their member of Congress accountable will likely have to cede some of their influence to the super PAC. And the super PAC will probably also suck up at least some of the campaign cash that has positioned locals as players in congressional races, forcing them, as one labor insider put it, to trade their local access for greater national clout.

But Trumka said that affiliates will have a seat at the table when the AFL-CIO decides what races to target and how much to spend—not to mention an obligation to help fund those efforts.

“We’re focused inward,” Trumka said. “We’re not going to rely on anybody else’s structure. We’re going to build our own structure.”

This article appears in the September 3, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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