Labor to the Rescue in Southern Senate Races? Not Exactly

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CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 06: U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) speaks during the final day of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 6, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The DNC, which concludes today, nominated U.S. President Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
Feb. 24, 2014, 7:08 a.m.

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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