Despite conflicts, labor unions back Obama

President Obama, shown with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in 2010, has clashed with labor unions over several issues, including foreign trade agreements. But unions are supporting his reelection bid.
Larry Downings/Reuters/File
President Obama, shown with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in 2010, has clashed with labor unions over several issues, including foreign trade agreements. But unions are supporting his reelection bid.

Organized labor, its historic alliance with the Democratic Party strained in recent years, has returned to basics in this political season.

After feuding openly with President Obama, unions are steadfastly supporting him, albeit in many cases with smaller budgets than in past campaigns and a model that emphasizes on-the-ground organization and support for legislative allies at the congressional and, in some cases, even state level. That will mean fewer costly television ads bankrolled by union members’ dues before the Nov. 6 election.

“We’re not trying to compete with the Karl Roves of the world and raise money for TV ads; it’s not feasible, and it’s not our philosophy,” said Mike Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation with more than 12 million active and retired members. “What we do is encourage members to get involved in the ground game, expanding our walks, calls, social networking, and using the Internet.”


Last week, the AFL-CIO announced it had registered 450,000 new voters over 18 months in union households, including 68,000 in Ohio, one of the more unionized states and a critical electoral-vote battleground in the presidential campaign. The AFL-CIO’s super PAC, Workers’ Voice, has instituted “RePurpose,” a program which allows volunteers to accumulate points for their activities and then decide how the super PAC will allocate future resources such as mail or phone calls on behalf of candidates of the volunteers’ choice.

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Labor’s arm’s-length alliance with Obama is the result of clashes over foreign trade agreements, his negotiations with Republicans on budget cuts and deficit reduction, and the selection of North Carolina, a so-called right-to-work state with the lowest union membership rate in the country, as the site of the Democratic convention.

“It’s not been all sweetness and light for labor with Obama, but he’s been their guy,” said David Gergen, an administrator and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who served in Republican and Democratic White Houses. “They’ve got a vested interest in his success.”

The Obama campaign is relying heavily now on its vaunted ground game, Gergen said, and “labor has always been important for Democrats in terms of the ground game. The question is whether they’ll be as helpful as in the past.”

Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, said: “Labor is an important part of the Democratic Party, and unions are contributing to registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in a major way — and for good reason. . . . We share the same goals here.”


“There’s no doubt we didn’t get everything we wanted from the White House, but we are fully committed to the campaign and to seeing the president and vice president being elected, and we look forward to having a strong relationship after the election,” said Brian Weeks, political director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. “We are still committed and spending more than we have before,” Weeks said, though he declined to say how much.

With public employee rights under attack by Republican officials in states like Ohio and Wisconsin in the past year, AFSCME, the nation’s largest public employee union with 1.6 million active and retired members, has been a major player opposing the efforts with mixed results. Last fall, Ohioans overwhelmingly approved a ballot question to repeal a law weakening bargaining rights of public employees. In June, however, an attempt to recall Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker, a leading advocate for rolling back public employee rights, fell far short.

Other major labor players that are not part of the AFL-CIO are also supporting Obama’s reelection, including the National Education Association, the largest teachers union with 3.2 million members, and the 2.1-million member Service Employees International Union, which has been among the most politically active labor unions in recent years.

As of last week, SEIU and its affiliates had spent $16.3 million on the campaign from various sources, including its so-called super PAC, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group. That’s down from $42 million in 2008, the group’s data show.

The expenditures this cycle include a joint $4 million advertising campaign with Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting Obama, aimed at Latino voters in three key states. And about 40 percent of the SEIU super PAC’s independent expenditures have been targeted to helping Democratic Senate and House candidates, with a heavy emphasis on cavassing in the field, a review of filings with the Federal Election Commission shows.


In an election cycle when conservative and Republican super PACs have dominated spending by outside groups, most of it devoted to negative television ads, organized labor has been less of a force on the Democratic side. Besides independent expenditures to influence specific elections, SEIU is among 13 labor unions that each contributed at least $100,000 to House Majority PAC, the super PAC supporting Democratic House candidates, and among nine unions giving at least that amount to Majority PAC, the super PAC supporting Democratic candidates for Senate. In both cases, the laborers union has been the top union contributor, giving a combined $1.8 million to the two PACs. SEIU had given a total of $678,000 to those super PACs through the last FEC reporting period.

Through the end of August, seven unions had contributed $3.83 million of the $36 million raised through August by Priorities USA Action, with SEIU, the plumbers and national air traffic controllers unions each giving about $1 million.

Brian Mooney can be reached at bmooney@globe.com