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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.

The elections sent a clear message that voters support tax hikes for the wealthy and oppose cuts in entitlements programs, they argue, and polls seem to bear that out. If President Barack Obama signaled some flexibility on entitlements changes before Election Day, labor leaders have shown no such willingness to bend.

“The problem has been tax cuts for the rich, and fighting unfunded wars, not that people are getting too much Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid,” Podhorzer said. “Those programs are keeping people alive. And I’m sure we won’t be compromising on those points at all.”

Leading the charge in the grass-roots campaign to block entitlements cuts are the same unions that spent heavily and organized record numbers of volunteers in the 2012 elections.

In addition to the AFL-CIO, these include the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union.

“It was an easy transition for our members, who were already fired up from the election,” said NEA Government Relations Director Mary Kusler. The NEA mobilized almost 500,000 members to help re-elect Obama, according to Kusler, more than twice the 190,000 NEA volunteers who hit the campaign trail in 2008.

AFSCME organizers have also essentially kept their campaign infrastructure in place, spokesman Chris Fleming said. Labor organizers staged grass-roots demonstrations on Nov. 8 to launch their advocacy campaign to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from the chopping block.

“It’s the campaign that never ends — because we haven’t stopped,” he said. “Labor didn’t pick up its tent and go home after the election.”

Labor organizers are also working closely with a much larger progressive coalition that includes civil rights, health care, community and senior citizen groups.

Key players involved in the Monday demonstrations include MoveOn.org, the umbrella group Jobs With Justice, and a new liberal coalition dubbed The Action, which in part has set out to mobilize some of the Democratic volunteers who helped re-elect Obama.

“People recognize what’s at stake here,” SEIU Director of Government Relations Peter Colavito said. “I think our members and people from their communities will be coming back to Washington to make their voices heard on these issues.”

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