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Labor Union Flexes Muscle With Super PAC

In a signal that labor organizers plan to fully exploit a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that relaxed campaign finance rules, the AFL-CIO today unveiled a new super PAC aimed at vastly expanding the federation’s political reach.

The new Workers’ Voice super PAC will tap union members at 14,000 worksites around the country to mobilize both union members and non-union voters through social networks and digital media, AFL-CIO organizers said at a press conference. The super PAC will report $5.4 million raised and $4.1 million in cash on hand when it files its first-quarter disclosure reports next week, a federation spokesman said.

Those receipts don’t compare with the tens of millions already spent by GOP-friendly super PACs so far in 2012, acknowledged AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer. He cast the labor movement as swamped by the unrestricted corporate money backing such super PACs as American Crossroads, organized in part by GOP strategist Karl Rove, and Restore Our Future, which supports Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney.

“We were outspent 20-to-1 last time,” said Podhorzer, referring to the 2010 elections. “We will probably be outspent 20-to-1 this time. But we are going to out-organize them by more than 20-to-1.”

Workers’ Voice reinforces that labor unions will also operate under new and less restrictive rules in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. The court’s decision freed up not just corporations, but also labor unions to spend their treasury money directly on elections.

Under the old rules, the AFL-CIO was barred from tapping its treasury to mobilize non-union voters, for example. Now the federation may cast a broader net, reaching out to all voters. The federation has started doing that through an affiliate known as Working America. As Podhorzer put it, the “legal handcuffs” have been taken off.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced plans to launch the PAC last August, describing at the time a shift away from electoral politics toward a year-round issue campaigns that de-emphasize the labor movement’s traditional role bolstering Democratic party committees and candidates.

“Workers’ Voice isn’t about political parties or individual candidates,” said AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler, who stepped in for Trumka at the last minute today. Trumka has been “emphatic” that the super PAC’s “goal is to invest more of that money in building a workers’ movement than in funding politicians,” Shuler said.

Workers’ Voice is “radically different” from anything yet tried on the right or the left, said Shuler, in that it will focus on personal networks, both online and in neighborhoods, to build a movement to bolster the middle class. The super PAC will reach out to students, the elderly and diverse ethnic groups to build a pro-worker movement and ensure that a new wave of state-level restrictions on ballot access, including voter ID laws, don’t block voters from the polls.

“It will exist not just today, not just tomorrow, but year-round, 12 months a year,” said Shuler. She pointed to the fight over collective bargaining in Wisconsin as evidence of labor organizers’ ability to tap popular support.

The AFL-CIO mobilized thousands of volunteers to gather the necessary signatures to force a June recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker. That recall fight, which has been complicated by a primary skirmish between Democrats vying for the chance to challenge Walker, is shaping up to be a critical test of labor’s clout.

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