How far can labor take Democrats in a big-money era?

The Citizens United decision and unsympathetic politicians are testing union relevance.

Joe Biden bounded onto the stage at the annual convention of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees in Los Angeles with a grin from ear to ear. Down-home Delaware Joe had come to deliver a fiery pep talk to an audience that's down in the dumps.

“You guys are under full-blown assault” by Republicans, the vice president told members of one of the nation’s largest unions representing public-sector workers. “They hear 'labor,' and they think enemy. They hear 'labor,' and they see an opportunity to scapegoat labor for the problems they created. They don’t understand what we’re about.”

The tone of Biden's Tuesday speech — Rah-rah! Go team! We're all in this together! — was a telling barometer of where unions find themselves on the brink of a critical election: reeling from a failed recall challenge to GOP Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, facing attacks to strip them of their collective-bargaining power in other states, and watching their membership and national clout decline. 

If there’s a moment for soul-searching and a recalibration of strategy, this is it.

Look at 2012 as labor’s rude welcome to politics in a post-Citizens United world. The controversial Supreme Court decision, handed down in 2010, opened the floodgates for unlimited campaign contributions just as a wave of Republican governors and legislators, intent on cutting budgets and curbing union pay and influence, came into power. The result: Unions were forced into showdowns with challengers who had the backing of well-heeled conservative financiers, and in some cases, were humiliatingly rebuked.

The November elections are poised to be the next big test: Can unions prove themselves relevant in the big-money era? Or will they continue their fade to 20th-century relic?

The post-mortems of labor’s effort to recall Walker for his union-busting policies are varied as they are numerous, but there’s one common denominator among them: the bludgeoning Democrats and labor took on the fundraising front. According to an analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group, unions and other groups supporting the recall mustered $19 million; Walker and his allies spent $47 million through late May. 

Union leaders and strategists readily acknowledge that they won’t ever be able to compete dollar-for-dollar in this election cycle or any other as long as the current rules stand. Instead, they’re recommitting themselves to what they say has always been their strength: an ever-more sophisticated ground game and advanced get-out-the-vote operation. Moreover, labor leaders said, they too intend to take advantage of Citizens United. For all the inequities it has exacerbated on the fundraising front, the decision will allow unions for the first time in a presidential election to use their money to reach out to nonmembers. 

Citizens United creates a more challenging battlefield for unions. Whereas they already had to be smart and efficient about how they spent their money, they now have to be even smarter and more efficient at turning it into votes,” said Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster who works closely with labor organizations. “Is that enough to totally make up for all the money on the other side? No one really knows yet. We’ll see how it plays out.”

The AFL-CIO revealed last week that it is pulling back direct contributions to political candidates, including President Obama, and pouring more money into its own internal infrastructure. “It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine raising the kind of money that the Kochs and others can put on the table,” said Michael Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO. “Our view is, in this election and even more important in the long run, the traditional ground game and the new kind of ground game are going to be essential in trying to balance that money.”

The Service Employees International Union, another major force in politics, unveiled a wide-reaching voter-contact offensive on Tuesday that will entail 13 million phone calls, knocking on more than 3 million doors, and reaching three times as many members of the general public as the group had in years past to support Obama. The effort will be concentrated in eight presidential battlegrounds — another novelty — and will target portions of the electorate sympathetic to Democrats and unions, namely African-Americans, Hispanics, and younger voters. At the same time, SEIU has partnered with Priorities USA, the super PAC backing President Obama, to launch a $4 million Spanish-language ad campaign earlier this month.

Overall, SEIU says it plans on spending roughly what it spent on political activities in 2008 — around $80 million. AFSCME has signaled that it intends on surpassing its 2008 figure with spending in the ballpark of $100 million. So unions are not completely strapped for cash.

Yet their spending now seems quaint next to the amount of money being wielded by individual billionaire financiers on the conservative side. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson alone has given $71 million to various Republican-allied super PACs and organizations, The Huffington Post reported — and that’s just so far.

The picture is complicated by the fact that union resources have been sapped by the costly fights waged over their basic ability to function, such as the Wisconsin recall election instigated by labor. “It’s a win-win for the other side when they engage unions in these fights,” said Steve Rosenthal, former political director of the AFL-CIO. “Every dime that unions are forced to spend on these fights is a dime that unions can’t spend to defend their members, organize, and support candidates who support workers’ rights.”

Democratic strategists nonetheless said unions still have a role to play in the Democratic Party, even if they can't bankroll candidates to victory. “It doesn’t mean they’re not relevant,” said pollster Mark Mellman. “It means they’re not Sheldon Adelson.”

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