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Unions Gear Up to Push Agenda at the Polls

by Louis Aguilar

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.

"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) 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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