Leading Union Super PAC Revamps Political Strategy, Lets Members Call The Shots

on April 26 2012 4:35 PM

In a major shift in how the AFL-CIO deploys its political power, the union federation announced that it will begin giving members direct say over what campaigns it spends money on, and how.

Under the new plan, the Super PAC aligned with the AFL-CIO will assign points to members who participate in conventional campaign tactics like phone banking and canvassing. Members who accumulate enough points can direct the Workers' Voices Super PAC to spend a corresponding amount of money on a campaign of their choice -- whether a congressional race, a union organizing drive or a legislative push -- and can direct that money toward a specific mechanism like advertisements or field work.

The change could reverberate through the political landscape. An analysis for the Center for Public Integrity found that the AFL-CIO has spent the eighth-largest sum of any individual or organization so far this election cycle, drawing on dues and contributions from member organizations to pour some $2.3 million into Workers' Voices. The Super PAC announced in late March that it had raised $5.4 million so far and had $4.1 cash on hand.

Super PACs, which have arisen as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in the 2010 Citizens United case, are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money but are technically prohibited from coordinating with political campaigns.

The Citizens United decision has been heavily criticized -- including by President Barack Obama -- for allowing affluent individuals and corporations to drastically alter the political process by spending boundless amounts of money. But the decision also empowers unions, both by lifting limits on what union Super PACs can raise and by eliminating restrictions that dictated the types of political advocacy union members could engage in.

Formerly, unions could only campaign to union members. In the post-Citizens United world, members can call and knock on the doors of non-union members as well. By incentivizing political activity, the new system builds on that expanded ability to marshal votes.

We are going to empower people and empower workers in a way that's not been done before, Workers' Voice spokesman Eddie Vale told the Huffington Post. There may be a congressional race that isn't much on people's radar in D.C. But if there are a hundred activists in that congressional district who get their asses out of bed every morning and make phone calls and knock on doors, we feel they have earned the right to put [our] resources there. 

Typically bastions of Democratic support, unions have long been a bugaboo of Republicans who argue organized labor has too much political clout. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has called for a ban on political spending by unions, saying labor leaders are free to ignore the wishes of their constituents.

Unions should not have the power to take money out of their members' paychecks to buy the support of politicians favored by the union bosses, Romney said in a recent stump speech.

Vale told the Huffington Post that the new program undercuts Romney's assertion, particularly because non-union members are free to participate and get a say in how Workers' Voices spends its money.

This wasn't created in response to Romney's comments, Vale told the Huffington Post. But it is a very good answer to [Republicans'] canard that there is some secret union boss in D.C. making these decisions, because this is literally not just any rank-and-file union member making decisions, this is any member of the general public.

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