One year after America's labor movement saw its largest schism in decades, unions are gearing up for a high-stakes political battle in November.
It's the first test of how the split between the AFL-CIO and the new seven-union Change to Win labor federation will affect the political activities of the labor movement. It's also a chance for unions to demonstrate that they still wield political heft despite dwindling membership.
The coming elections were a key topic at separate meetings in Chicago this week of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the executive council of the AFL-CIO. In one promising sign for labor's fall push to help Democrats, the rival federations have launched a national committee to coordinate political activities.
"I believe they're going to be reasonably unified, but it's a little bit early to say how well the coordination will work," says Rick Hurd, a labor expert at Cornell University. He notes that the Change to Win affiliates, which represent some 6 million members, may be less likely to do an all-out field operation than they were two years ago as AFL-CIO unions.
Despite fewer members, unions "have become more and more effective at communicating their message to members, and at getting members to vote according to labor endorsements," he adds.
With several key gubernatorial battles and a chance to take back the House and, possibly, the Senate for Democrats, unions see these as particularly critical midterm elections. They're doing their best to prepare:
•The AFL-CIO is dedicating the most it ever has for a nonpresidential election – $40 million – for political mobilization this fall. It has zeroed in on 21 key states to focus on and will be active in more than 200 Senate, House, gubernatorial, and state legislative races.
•AFSCME announced a new initiative this week that, among other things, will create an army of 40,000 volunteers to do political registration and get-out-the-vote work. The union will also aggressively raise funds for its large political action committee and raise membership dues $3 a month to help fill coffers for future elections.
•The AFL-CIO and the Change to Win federation have set up a national labor coordinating committee for political activities. They've agreed to merge member lists, work together on phone banks, walks, and leaflet distribution, and help state and local groups work closely on key elections.
"These elections are really important – they're going to set the tone for the presidential election in 2008," says Edgar Romney, secretary-treasurer of Change to Win and co-chair of the coordinating council. "I think the understanding and attitude is that we're all in this together and we have to win this battle. And whatever differences have evolved at the top, we'll put those aside."
But there are still some clear differences. When Change to Win split off last year, one key reason was its philosophy that organizing, not politics, was where the labor movement should be focused. And that is showing up this fall. Whereas the AFL-CIO is active in hundreds of races, Change to Win – at least at a national level – is zeroing in on three. They're all gubernatorial races: in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
"This is our first election cycle. It's a new approach to doing our politics. So we're strategically looking at where we can have the most impact," says Colleen Brady, Change to Win's political campaigns director. "The priority of the Change to Win labor federation and the founding of it is based on organizing new members. Politics plays a role in that."
Local groups and individual Change to Win unions will probably be active in many more races, she notes. "It's still a labor family. On the ground, we will work together where it makes sense."
AFSCME – the largest union in the AFL-CIO and one of the most political, because it represents public employees – is concentrating on a wide swath of races, from critical congressional battles to gubernatorial and state legislative races.
The gubernatorial races are particularly important, says AFSCME political director Larry Scanlon, because they can have such an enormous impact on organizing rights. After losing Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky recently to Republican governors, collective bargaining rights in those states were virtually eliminated, he says.
AFSCME is spending about $20 million to get out its political message in 2006 and another $6 million to $7 million in direct campaign contributions through its political action committee. It recruited and trained some 40 congressional candidates to run this year, and has targeted 12 congressional districts with moderate Republicans that it thinks might be receptive to labor-friendly ideas.
"I think we can take back the House – Republicans are running scared," says Mr. Scanlon. As for the unusually large number of races that AFSCME is involved in, he says that "it's a target-rich environment. That's one of the problems this year."
Some observers have been skeptical about how much influence labor is able to wield politically these days, with a membership that has dwindled to a little more than 12 percent of working Americans. But others say that even as their numbers have gone down, their political activities have gotten far more sophisticated than they were a decade or two ago.
Unions have harnessed technology, focused on races where they can have the most impact, and stepped up member-to-member campaigning, they point out. As a result, a growing percentage of voters are union members.
"I can think of a number of things labor has done wrong, both politically and nonpolitically, in the last decade," says Robert Bruno, a labor expert with the Chicago Labor Education Program of the University of Illinois. "But one unappreciated success is how effective labor's political impact and outreach have become."