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Rules of the Game: Unions Leveraging Election Day Wins

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Trumka’s AFL-CIO is continuing the work it started on the campaign trail, voicing support for social welfare programs.

Unions buffeted at the state level are enjoying more success on Capitol Hill, where the fiscal cliff debate is shaping up as a key test of labor movement political clout.

Leading unions have not paused for breath since Nov. 6, mobilizing virtually the same volunteers around the same message in the budget fight as they did on the campaign trail. Labor leaders and their progressive allies are staging more than 100 candlelight vigils at congressional district offices nationwide on Monday. The actions come on the heels of two rounds of TV ads and a Capitol Hill fly-in.

“I think we’ve learned that it’s incredibly important that our program be seamless and year-round and not just spike around Election Day,” said Mike Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO. The labor group’s president, Richard Trumka, in particular, is making good on his promise last year on unveiling the Workers’ Voice super PAC to shift the federation’s focus from elections tied to the Democratic Party, to worker-driven issues and advocacy.

The threat of cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid has rallied labor leaders and other progressive activists and strengthened ties between union organizers and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

House and Senate Democrats are well aware that labor organizers played a key role in getting out the vote and in helping Democratic-friendly super PACs compete with their GOP counterparts.

Congressional Democrats “are working in an invigorated partnership with labor leaders,” one Democratic operative said. Left-leaning activists are rallying grass-roots support behind a Democratic-authored House discharge petition aimed at pressuring Republicans to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for taxpayers making $250,000 a year or less, while allowing them to expire for the top tier of earners.

“You saw liberal organizations deliver in the 2012 elections for their candidates in significant numbers, and in real ways labor was a vital partner,” this Democrat said. “And people know that.”

Not that the labor movement’s many systemic challenges have gone away. Unions still represent a declining percentage of the workforce. Influential new players, including the business-allied $40 million Fix the Debt Coalition, have launched their own campaign to convince Americans and lawmakers that the budget can’t be balanced without trimming entitlements.

And unions remain under GOP assault at the state level, as evidenced by Michigan legislators’ approval last week of a “right to work” bill that would ban employment conditions requiring workers to join a union or pay an agency fee. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has pledged to sign the bill, which won quick state House and Senate approval Dec. 6, despite emotional protests in the state Capitol.

But if anything, state-level collective bargaining challenges appear to have strengthened labor organizers’ resolve inside the Beltway.

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