Unions Gear Up to Push Agenda at the Polls

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The Detroit News

Unions Gear Up to Push Agenda at the Polls

by
Louis Aguilar

"We need another stimulus package," UAW President Bob King, right, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, told Ford workers in Wayne last month. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

Unions have intensified
political fundraising and spending for the upcoming midterm elections,
which union leaders and political analysts alike describe as the most
important campaigns for the labor movement in decades.

The
result this Labor Day is that unions are forging closer alliances with
each other as they strategize about how to spend money, deploy staff and
determine which races to target.

National
AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker will march in the
Detroit Labor Day parade today as part of an effort to call for
good-paying jobs and to boost get-out-the-vote efforts for the Nov. 2
election.

Amid steep
membership declines, unions are trying to maintain their clout in
Washington, where union-friendly Democrats control Congress and the
White House, and in Lansing, where Democrats hold the governorship and
rule the state House of Representatives, but not the state Senate.

At
stake is whether Congress will continue to embrace labor-backed
policies to address unemployment and other problems, and whether the
Michigan Legislature will try to cut benefits for unionized public
employees that are straining the state budget.

"The
most important thing in this election is how to get the economy back on
track," UAW President Bob King said in an interview last week. "We need
an FDR-type (public works) program so that the millions of people who
want to be working can have available work."

The
UAW is "going to be very aggressive in forming coalitions," said King,
who already has worked with the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and other leaders
in holding advocacy marches. "We're trying to say that at least
President Obama and the Democrats have been trying to do something.
Republicans have abused the filibuster and made irresponsible and
immoral decisions to not do anything."

On
Oct. 2, UAW members will be among thousands of union marchers expected
to converge in Washington for a rally initially organized by the NAACP
to advocate for more federal jobs programs, better public education and
to blast Republican policy alternatives.

Putting aside differences

A prominent example of union
cooperation is that leaders of the national AFL-CIO and the Service
Employees International Union have formed a coalition to target the
Michigan elections, along with races in 25 other states, by coordinating
spending and staff to support pro-union candidates, most of them
Democrats. Five years ago, the unions angrily split over differences on
organizing.

The
AFL-CIO and SEIU still worked together at the local level after the
split, said Harley Shaiken, a professor at University of California,
Berkeley, who follows the labor movement. But the national coalition
"shows how much unions have put aside differences to work for the
greater good," Shaiken said.

Unions
face an uphill battle both in Washington and Michigan, said Steve
Mitchell, a conservative political consultant in East Lansing.

Numerous
polls indicate Republicans could win enough seats to gain control of
the U.S. House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate, as well as
make significant headway in the Michigan Legislature. In the state
governor's race, initial polling shows Republican nominee Richard "Rick"
Synder has a double-digit lead over Democrat Virgil "Virg" Bernero, who
is backed by unions.

"There is just too much anger over the health care bill, the (lack of effectiveness of) stimulus package," Mitchell said.

One labor analyst said unions are fighting to remain relevant.

"Unions
have become demonized over the past two years," said Gary Chaison, a
professor at Clark University at Worcester, Mass., who closely follows
labor. "At this time of high unemployment, unions have been
characterized as part of the problem, not the solution. They are
fighting the real possibility of becoming irrelevant to the process."

Unions
were not irrelevant when Obama took office in January 2009. He signed
executive orders that gave union work forces advantages in federal
contracting decisions. He guided a $787 billion stimulus package with
aid for the states and jobless that the labor movement backed. His auto
task force helped the UAW, through its health care trust, get a 39
percent equity share of General Motors Co. and a 55 percent share of
Chrysler when the two automakers went through bankruptcy.

Teamsters
President James P. Hoffa wrote in a February 2009 column in The Detroit
News that "Obama championed labor unions in a way that no U.S.
president has done in my memory."

But
the Democratic Congress and Obama have struggled to pass the labor
movement's biggest priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would
eliminate secret-ballot organizing elections and make it easier to form
unions.

If the Democrats lose control of Congress, chances of passing the legislation will die, Chaison said.

Midterm elections crucial

That's why unions are focusing on the midterm elections.

Although
UAW membership fell last year by 76,000 to a post-World War II low of
355,191, the UAW's political action committee, or PAC, in Michigan has
already raised 13 percent more, $852,000, from January to July this year
than it did during the same period in the 2008 election.

Union
PAC fundraising in Michigan is up 3.5 percent from the same time in the
2008 election cycle, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance
Network, a Lansing nonprofit that tracks political fundraising and
spending.

"My sense
is that unions are investing heavily in governors' races because a lot
of labor policy is made at the state level and redistricting is coming
up," said Jennifer King, editor of the Cook Political Report in
Washington.

The UAW has supplied much-need staffing resources to Bernero's once long-shot campaign.

The
midterm election in Michigan is also more important than usual,
analysts contend. For only the second time since World War II, no
incumbents are running for all four constitutional offices -- governor,
lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

And many of the 38 seats in the state Senate and 110 state House seats are open because of term limits.

"This
election is so, so important," said David Hecker, president of the
Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. "We are taking a
real deep look at our finances. You know, it doesn't do us much good if
we held onto money. Why hold back?"

Many union leaders say their contributions are dwarfed by Republicans and corporate donors.

The
Michigan PAC that has collected the most money is the national
Republican Governors Association, which formed a state PAC that had
raised $4.3 million through July. That's $2.6 million more than the
second highest PAC, the Michigan House Democratic Fund.

Nationally,
unions have six of the top 10 nonpolitical party PACs in campaign
spending this year, and half of the top 10 campaign fundraising PACs,
according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They traditionally are
among the largest fundraisers and spenders.

Unions
have poured millions of dollars into "issue ads," such as a $750,000
television spot that began two weeks ago called "Burnt Dignity" in the
Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek media markets.

The
ad was paid for by AFSCME, the municipal workers union, and is aimed at
supporting first-term Rep. Mark Schauer, a Democrat, against the
Republican he replaced, Tim Walberg. Their 2008 race was settled by
about 7,500 votes.

It
is one of two Michigan congressional seats that Democrats won from
Republican incumbents in 2008 that the GOP hopes to regain -- the other
is now held by Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Hills.

Walberg
skipped the vote on the auto industry bailout, the ad says, but "sided
with big oil and hedge funds -- gave them tax loopholes."

"Haven't we been burned badly enough?" the announcer asks.

While
labor union leaders say they haven't gotten everything they wanted,
they blame Republicans and some Democrats for blocking legislative
progress.

"We need another stimulus package," King told workers at a Ford Motor Co. plant in Wayne he visited last month.

Dave Turner, a crane operator and 37-year veteran at the plant, was receptive to King's message.

"I'm
glad our president is out here trying to charge everybody up," Turner
said. "We need people to stand up and save American manufacturing and
American jobs. I don't think most Republicans have a clue about that."

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