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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Can Labor Leverage ‘Citizens United’ Ruling?

Our 9/20 staff post commented on one of the unintended, beneficial effects of the Citizens United ruling – an affirmation of transparency in financial disclosure of political donations. In his “A Campaign Finance Ruling Turned to Labor’s Advantage” in today’s new York Times, Steven Greenhouse reports on yet another possible upside for Democrats:

Labor unions had initially assailed the ruling, known as Citizens United, for allowing corporations and wealthy donors to vastly expand their spending on campaigns. That has indeed happened, with the proliferation of a new generation of political action committees, known as Super PACs, that can accept unlimited donations.
But the ruling also changed the rules for unions, effectively ending a prohibition on outreach to nonunion households. Now, unions can use their formidable numbers to reach out to sympathetic nonunion voters by knocking on doors, calling them at home and trying to get them to polling places. They can also create their own Super PACs to underwrite bigger voter identification and get-out-the-vote operations than ever before.
…Before the Citizens United ruling, unions were banned from using dues money to reach out to nonmembers in political campaigns, but now unions plan to campaign among the 89 percent of Americans who do not belong to unions. Union officials have long complained that when their foot soldiers knocked on doors in, say, Milwaukee or Columbus, Ohio, they wasted huge amounts of time because they could visit only union members’ homes and often had to skip 90 percent of the houses. Now they can knock on every door on a block.

Instead of funding Democrats in general, the federation is expected to cherry-pick pro-union political candidates, including the occasional Republican. The hope is that this will encourage Democrats to more ardently embrace pro-union policies.
In 2008 unions spent about $200 million to support Democratic candidates. But labor leaders were disappointed in the failure of many Democratic members of congress to support union priorities like the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Greenhouse adds that the federation is expected to set up a ‘super PAC’ that will function year-round, as opposed to only during campaigns. He quotes AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka: “Now we’re going to have a full-time campaign, and that campaign will be able to move, hopefully, from electoral politics to issue advocacy and accountability.”
There is the danger that the decline in union funding for Democratic candidates could lead to a GOP sweep — and and even stronger Republican assault on collective bargaining rights. But it is also possible that the new union policy could encourage Dems to step up and support unions, which may already be reflected in the President’s American Jobs Act, as Trumka suggests.
Greenhouse reports that the politically-active Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has seized the opportunity presented by the Citizens United ruling, sending “thousands of members to knock on hundreds of thousands of doors in blue-collar neighborhoods in Cleveland, Milwaukee and a dozen other cities, aiming to educate and mobilize union and nonunion workers on economic issues.” The union also mobilized a sit-in at the office of GOP Representative Paul D. Ryan to protest his proposals to gut Medicare.
Labor leaders are aware that the Citizens United Ruling is far more beneficial to corporations, with their much deeper pockets. But at least unions are using the ruling to optimize their strategy.

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