Top labor union aims to topple six GOP governors: payback or big risk?

For 2014, the AFL-CIO is targeting Republican governors in Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which have signed bills curbing union rights. But big-spending GOP 'super PACs' could stand in the way.

Morry Gash/AP
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks to fellow governors during a session of the National Governors Association meeting Aug. 4, 2013 in Milwaukee. The six governors America's most powerful labor union is targeting are primarily from the Midwest: John Kasich in Ohio, Rick Scott in Florida, Rick Snyder in Michigan, and Walker, plus Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania and Paul LePage in Maine.

America’s most powerful labor union is targeting six Republican governors in a campaign to remove them from office in 2014.

The strategy is considered by payback for a series of attacks on organized labor since November 2010, when voters ushered the new wave of hard-right Republicans into office. The legislation the governors pushed curbed many unions' collective bargaining rights, established right-to-work laws, clamped down on voting rights, and, subsequently, diminished union strength in those states.

The GOP governors said the battle was about balancing budgets, but it looked to the unions like a frontal assault on their survival. That's why the AFL-CIO, rather than accepting the 2014 election as a referendum on President Obama, aims to bring the fight to the states that mark the breaking point for union growth.

“The stakes for working people are particularly high. We think these are states in which the legislative and political framework could tip significantly one way or another,” says Jeff Hauser, an AFL-CIO spokesman in Washington.

The six governors are primarily from the Midwest: John Kasich in Ohio, Rick Scott in Florida, Rick Snyder in Michigan, and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, plus Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania and Paul LePage in Maine. Mr. Hauser says the AFL-CIO will not neglect important state and congressional races in the rest of the country, but its “focus” will be those six battlegrounds where the majority of its 12 million members are located.

The membership has fallen 5 percent between 2010 and 2012, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 11.3 percent of the US workforce belongs to the union, a 15 percent drop from 10 years ago. While union membership has eroded over decades, the more recent drop is largely blamed on efforts such as Governor Walker’s push to remove collective bargaining rights for public workers and Governor Snyder's successful bid to make Michigan the 24th right-to-work state.

“The most damage to unions over the last decade is coming from these governors," says Geoff Peterson, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. "It doesn’t strike me as shocking they would be the focus.

“In terms of preserving the unions, the battle is a state-level fight rather than a national one," he adds.

In whittling back the power of public-sector unions, the governors and Republican-led legislatures struck at the heart of organized labor. Such workers now represent the majority of union membership: Nearly 36 percent of public workers are in a union, five times higher than the nearly 7 percent of private-sector workers who are unionized, according to the labor bureau.

During the past two years, unions have dispatched ground troops and spent millions on a continual stream of elections in various states, including a failed recall of Walker last year, when union spending neared $2 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group.

In addition, political action committees representing unions spent about $4.4 billion on federal, state, and local politicking between 2005 and 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

Waging fights on so many fronts not only eroded union resources, but it also created internal debate, and even strife, about how unions should focus their priorities, says Robert Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

“It’s difficult to have political influence you want to have in moving legislation and opposing legislation when the institutions themselves are fighting for the right to actually exist. You can’t push forward with any legislation when you’re constantly playing defense,” says Professor Bruno.

One big challenge the unions faced in those fights – and continue to face – is being outspent by the competition. The AFL-CIO raised about $22 million during the 2012 election cycle through the Workers Voice, its political action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That puts it in the top tier for "super PACs" during that period, but the sum is already overshadowed by money Republicans have raised this year alone.

The Republican Governors Association reported last week it raised $23.6 million in the first half of 2013, half of what the Democratic Governors Association raised during that period. The RGA says the money puts it “in a strong position to help re-elect Republican governors … over the next 15 months.” One of its greatest benefactors: conservative billionaire David Koch, who donated at least $1 million.

“Republican governors are driving America’s comeback by balancing budgets, creating jobs, improving education, and pursuing free market solutions to the challenges facing our states," said RGA Chairman Bobby Jindal, in a statement. "The effective leadership of 30 Republican governors across the nation stands in stark contrast to the gridlock and absence of leadership in Washington, D.C.”

The failed recall of Walker in Wisconsin last year “woke unions up to the fact that just spending a of of money isn’t going to solve the problem,” says Mr. Peterson. “That’s a fight they can’t win. Supporters of Walker and his wing of the party have a lot more money than the unions could ever hope to raise.”

That is why Hauser says the AFL-CIO is planning an “investment in human capital” to win in 2014, rather than opening the checkbook. “This is not about spending more money,” he says.

The key to its efforts will be in grass-roots organizing: using databases to target voters and tapping social media to “developing people’s skills and their comfort level in talking about politics," Hauser says.

This time, the aim is to build structure and training, to "rebuild the muscle of community engagement about political issues," he says. “One of the things we feel has been a problem over the last few generations is an erosion of people talking to friends, neighbors, and colleagues about politics. Communication has been listening to radio or passively watching television. We think politics are better, left, right, or center, when people are talking to people. The stakes are so high, people need to understand they can make a difference.”

Unions are also likely to create alliances with groups outside labor who may feel just as disenfranchised due to state rollbacks to abortion rights, civil voting rights, and other issues by the same Republican governors.

“They can build a relationship with other constituencies and be part of a broader democracy initiative and, if you push that, then you can make a difference. Because in a smaller contained space, while big money obviously matters, you can blunt the money difference,” says Bruno.

However, others caution unions against directing their efforts into fights where the incumbent governor is not necessarily vulnerable. That includes Wisconsin, where Walker has no obvious challenger and where he remains popular, according to recent polling.

“Wisconsin is not the state I would be watching. The real ‘tell’ is Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. If Republicans manage to hold onto even two of the three, the unions are toast,” says Peterson.

“That’s the thing unions have to be careful about: spreading themselves out too much or picking races they have no chances of winning. If they do that, they’re going to look weak,” he says. “And looking weak is a precursor to being weak.”

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