Labor organizations have long been shackled by limits on their political activity that required them to confine much of their canvassing and get-out-the-vote effort to union members, whose numbers have been steadily dwindling.
But now, unions have concluded they can ignore such restrictions under the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on elections.
The ruling paved the way for the super PACs that have had enormous success, particularly among conservatives, in raising money from wealthy donors with no restrictions. But labor lawyers say the decision also means that unions can use their treasury funds to encourage nonunion members to vote for specific candidates, a tactic that was barred under previous laws.
“It’s always been the bread and butter of labor that we had our ground game, but this really expands the possibilities,” said Eddie Vale, spokesman for Workers’ Voice, a super PAC formed by the AFL-CIO that plans to focus on grass-roots organizing.
Democrats are relying on such efforts to help counter the high-dollar fundraising of conservative groups. Three of the leading organizations backing Romney and other Republicans — American Crossroads, Restore Our Future and the American Action Network — plan to spend well over $300 million between now and November. Tens of millions more will be spent by Republican-leaning interest groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS groups, said independent conservative groups are “a counterbalance to the long-term influence that labor unions have had on the political process for decades. . . . What’s going on on the right is clearly balanced out by the labor unions.”
The environmental lobby is also a major player on the left. The League of Conservation Voters, for example, is planning a mix of grass-roots organizing and media buys, including a pro-Obama ad campaign to be launched next week.
Union leaders are coy about their specific plans but say they hope to match the estimated $450 million spent by unions and their political action committees in 2008.
The biggest spender, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, says it expects to surpass the $93 million it spent four years ago on federal, state and local elections. Another major player, the National Education Association, a teachers union, also hopes to beat its 2008 total of $50 million, officials said.
“There are so many different ways to go at voters, but at some point what’s really going to matter is who’s in your network, who’s in your community, and who do you trust?” said Carrie Pugh, campaign manager for the 3.2 million-member NEA. “We are banking on our members.”