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Democratic Senate candidates turn to unions for help

Getty Images/Marty Melville)
Getty Images/Marty Melville)

(Bloomberg) -- After snubbing the 2012 Democratic National Convention, labor leaders are this year pledging a flood of cash and volunteers for the party’s U.S. Senate candidates -- and getting plenty in return.

Democratic leaders have shelved a measure to encourage free-trade agreements -- which unions hate -- and are moving to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. President Barack Obama is seeking more for labor-backed job training programs in his budget request. And workers are winning key decisions by the Democrat-dominated National Labor Relations Board, after Obama helped clear the way for it to operate again at full strength.

In return, Democrats will need all the help they can get as they seek to preserve a slender, 55-45 majority in the Senate. The November elections include competitive races in Michigan, Alaska, Montana and other states that have workforces with a higher-than-average percentage of union membership.

“Nobody knows how to organize like they do,” said Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They bring a tremendous amount to the table. The biggest challenge we face this election cycle, because it’s a midterm, is turnout.”

Individual unions also will spend tens of millions of dollars to reach out to non-union voters, activity that was restricted until the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling removed limits on corporate and union independent election spending.

Unions have shown a growing willingness to help the party respond to the record sums being raised by Republican-leaning groups through super-political action committees, which can collect and spend unlimited sums on elections, and other organizations. That includes Crossroads GPS, founded with help from Republican Karl Rove, and Americans for Prosperity, backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

Super-PACs and nonprofit organizations spent $840 million in the 2012 elections. Labor unions donated $115.5 million through outside groups, about 14 percent of the total, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. So far this cycle, unions have donated $9 million, about 17 percent of the total, the CRP says.

“In recent years, labor has provided the edge that Democrats need to go toe-to-toe with any number of right-wing conservative groups,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

Not everyone is so sure labor can make a real difference. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said union-member anger over elements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is just one issue that might depress that part of the Democratic base.

And their dwindling numbers may also hamper their efforts, he said.

“There’s a lot that can disrupt this,” Josten said. “And they have a diminished capacity to get out the vote among their own people, because they’re in decline.”

And Obama risks angering unions later this year if he rejects TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which they favor for its job-creating potential. Environmentalists who back Obama oppose the pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast.

Unions are preparing to mobilize for Democrats after feuding with the Obama administration for years, with labor leaders angered over a lack of action on core issues including measures to make organizing workplaces easier. Most major unions declined to help fund 2012’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., because it was held in a so-called right-to-work state that prohibits making dues payments a condition of employment in union shops. The host city also lacked unionized hotels for delegates.

Voter turnout

The AFL-CIO’s polling data shows that members of unions are more likely than other voters to turn out in midterm elections in the most contested states. In the 2010 elections, 65 percent of union members affiliated with the labor federation voted in 19 swing states -- including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado -- versus 53 percent for non-union voters. In 2006, it was 65 percent for union voters versus 55 percent for non-union voters.

Union membership is higher than the national average in several states with the most competitive Senate races. That may help Democrats in a year when the party will defend 21 Senate seats, said Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO’s political director.

In Alaska, where Democratic Senator Mark Begich is fighting to keep his seat, 23.1 percent of workers are union members.

In Republican-leaning Montana, where 13 percent are in a union, Democrats are seeking to keep the Senate seat of Max Baucus, who has resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China.

Podhorzer said a concentration of union workers also could give labor sway in Kentucky, where Democrats seek to defeat the Senate’s minority leader, Mitch McConnell, and Michigan and Iowa, where Democrats Carl Levin and Tom Harkin are retiring.

“Those are places with pretty high union density, and we’re going to be running aggressive programs,” said Podhorzer, whose labor federation represents unions with 12.5 million members.

At the same time, unions are reaching out more broadly to non-union workers, minority voters and other parts of the Democratic base. Unions bolstered their political giving after the Supreme Court’s 2010 elimination of some contribution limits.

Worker PAC

“It’s an opportunity for us to be involved in states where we may not have as large a membership,” said Brian Weeks, political director at the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.

The AFL-CIO operates the Workers’ Voices PAC that that raised $21.9 million to help get out the vote among non-union workers in the 2012 elections, and it’s raised $5.2 million so far for this year’s contests.

Other unions that are gearing up for big spending efforts through super-PACs include the Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association, while the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners is behind a committee called Working for Working Americans. Taken together, those three super-PACs have raised $11.3 million so far for TV ads, voter outreach and other efforts in 2014.

Reid’s PAC

Just as important, unions are top givers to other outside groups geared toward electing Democrats. One union -- the Massachusetts Education Association -- is the biggest donor to the Senate Majority Fund, a super-PAC allied with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. It’s given $650,000 to the group that raised $8.6 million as of Dec. 31. Other unions have given at least $425,000.

The campaign fundraising and donations coincide with labor leaders’ boosting demands on top policymakers and getting results.

Podhorzer said labor leaders implored Democrats months ago to resist Obama’s call for “fast-track” legislation to speed action on trade deals at a time when unions are concerned that a pending pact with 11 Pacific region nations will cost jobs.

Reid announced in late January -- a day after Obama called for the legislation’s passage in his State of the Union address -- that he doesn’t want to see action on it this year.

“Everyone would be well-advised just to not push this right now,” said Reid, who opposed fast-track legislation in the past.

Unemployment benefits

Democratic leaders instead are pushing bills to bolster incomes of middle-class Americans, including a higher minimum wage and expanded unemployment benefits. Both are unlikely to go far in the Republican-led House if they clear the Senate.

Labor also is benefiting from last year’s end to a two-year standoff between Obama and Senate Republicans who blocked his nominees to the labor board. After he nominated two new Democrats, including a former general counsel for the United Auto Workers, Democrats used their one-seat edge on the board to propose speeding up the process for workers to form unions -- a proposal being criticized by business groups.

Still, some signs of acrimony between labor and Democrats remain. On Jan. 27, the president of the Laborers International Union of North America and Unite Here, which represents workers in industries including hotels and airports, told Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a letter they are “bitterly disappointed” by Obama administration PPACA rules they say may cause some employers to drop coverage and shift workers to government-subsidized plans including Medicaid.

--Editors: Steve Geimann, Jon Morgan.

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