Unions Are Making Moves Beyond Financing Political Campaigns

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Orange County in the past year has in many respects been an epicenter of an increasingly apparent strategy among labor leaders to move beyond simply funding political campaigns and into community coalition building.

The battles over the large-scale outsourcing plan in Costa Mesa and the recent effort in Anaheim against a $158-million subsidy for hotel developers are two examples of how local labor leaders see a future that includes more than simply walking in lock step with the Democratic Party.

An article in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times takes a fascinating look at how this is also playing out on the national level and having an impact on this year’s elections.

From the Times story:

The shift in tactics is already apparent in this election season: Labor political action committees gave federal Democratic candidates and committees $21 million last year, a drop of 20 percent from the same period in the 2008 election, according to data provided by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Several major unions, as well as the AFL-CIO itself, now have their own “super PACs,” independent political organizations that can raise unlimited funds.

A broader philosophical debate is also underway as union leaders discuss whether they can afford to invest the estimated $400 million overall that organized labor spent on [President Barack] Obama and congressional Democrats four years ago. Labor is also confronting a rash of Republican-backed efforts in the states — including California — that would make it harder for unions to organize and use their political clout.

Many argue that labor needs a permanent presence in communities across the country to beat back such attacks, even at the cost of devoting less money to electing candidates. Such an approach could still benefit Obama and other Democrats, but would not directly finance party activities.

Many in the labor movement see this trend as a reaction to decisions and policies by the Obama administration that have not been in their best interest. They are hoping that the end result will be labor working on a more local, grassroots level.

“In 2008, everything was about electing the president,” said Bob Master, legislative and political director for the CWA’s northeastern region. “There was a belief that if we just got rid of George Bush and had control of Congress, it would be the New Deal revisited, labor’s heyday. That turned out not to be the case.”

That debate is now roiling the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which under President Gerald McEntee has been one of the most influential players in national politics.

The union plans to spend as much as $100 million this year on its political program, largely to benefit Obama and other Democrats at the local, state and national levels. In January, AFSCME inserted itself into a GOP presidential primary for the first time, spending $1 million in Florida on a television ad attacking Romney.

That money could have been better spent mobilizing retirees in the state, said Danny Donohue, president of New York’s Civil Service Employees Assn., an affiliate of AFSCME, who is challenging current AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders in a vote this June to succeed McEntee.

Donohue said that under McEntee the union had become too “Washington-centric.”

We’ll call local labor leaders and later in the week have their observations on this trend.

— DAVID WASHBURN

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