If there’s a moment for soul-searching and a recalibration of strategy, this is it.
Look at 2012 as labor’s rude welcome to politics in a post-Citizens United world. The controversial Supreme Court decision, handed down in 2010, opened the floodgates for unlimited campaign contributions just as a wave of Republican governors and legislators, intent on cutting budgets and curbing union pay and influence, came into power. The result: Unions were forced into showdowns with challengers who had the backing of well-heeled conservative financiers, and in some cases, were humiliatingly rebuked.
The November elections are poised to be the next big test: Can unions prove themselves relevant in the big-money era? Or will they continue their fade to 20th-century relic?
The post-mortems of labor’s effort to recall Walker for his union-busting policies are varied as they are numerous, but there’s one common denominator among them: the bludgeoning Democrats and labor took on the fundraising front. According to an analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group, unions and other groups supporting the recall mustered $19 million; Walker and his allies spent $47 million through late May.
Union leaders and strategists readily acknowledge that they won’t ever be able to compete dollar-for-dollar in this election cycle or any other as long as the current rules stand. Instead, they’re recommitting themselves to what they say has always been their strength: an ever-more sophisticated ground game and advanced get-out-the-vote operation. Moreover, labor leaders said, they too intend to take advantage of Citizens United. For all the inequities it has exacerbated on the fundraising front, the decision will allow unions for the first time in a presidential election to use their money to reach out to nonmembers.
“Citizens United creates a more challenging battlefield for unions. Whereas they already had to be smart and efficient about how they spent their money, they now have to be even smarter and more efficient at turning it into votes,” said Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster who works closely with labor organizations. “Is that enough to totally make up for all the money on the other side? No one really knows yet. We’ll see how it plays out.”
The AFL-CIO revealed last week that it is pulling back direct contributions to political candidates, including President Obama, and pouring more money into its own internal infrastructure. “It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine raising the kind of money that the Kochs and others can put on the table,” said Michael Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO. “Our view is, in this election and even more important in the long run, the traditional ground game and the new kind of ground game are going to be essential in trying to balance that money.”