Labor Leaders to Apply New Clout in Effort for Obama

As the A.F.L.-C.I.O. prepares to endorse President Obama on Tuesday, labor leaders say they will mount their biggest campaign effort, with far more union members than ever before — at least 400,000, they say — knocking on voters’ doors to counter the well-endowed “super PACs” backing Republicans.

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

The same Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that set the stage for these political action committees to accept unlimited donations also allowed unions to send their foot soldiers to visit not just union members at home, but also voters who do not belong to unions — a move expected to increase labor’s political clout significantly in this year’s elections.

Unions first used their expanded ability in a big way in Ohio last November to educate and mobilize both union and nonunion voters in a battle to repeal a law that curbed bargaining rights for Ohio’s teachers, firefighters and other public employees. Spurred by 17,000 union volunteers, labor won in a blowout, with Ohioans voting 62 percent to 38 percent to repeal a law that the Republican-dominated Legislature had enacted seven months earlier.

“That was a pretty big wake-up call to the Republican Party and also to the Democratic Party, because it showed what labor unions can do when they’re motivated and can reach out to voters across the board,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

With numerous super PACsexpected to broadcast a flood of TV spots in support of the Republican nominee, the Obama campaign is looking to organized labor to play a major role in offsetting that. Labor leaders say they expect unions to spend $400 million this year on national, state and local elections — including $100 million by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — but they say their ground troops, not money, is labor’s signal contribution.

Union officials assert that the elections this November, at the national and state levels, are vital to labor’s future because Republicans have made repeated efforts to undermine unions, whether through Wisconsin’s legislation to curb public sector collective bargaining, Indiana’s “right to work” law or Congressional efforts to weaken the National Labor Relations Board.

Labor leaders voice confidence that they can rally millions of blue-collar voters behind President Obama in battleground states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“Look at what we’ve already seen this year — the super PACs have spent tens of millions of dollars,” Richard L. Trumka, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s president, said in an interview. “We’re going to counter that by getting people out. We’ll never be able to match them with money.”

The Service Employees International Union, with two million members, aims to mobilize 100,000 of its members this year — twice as many as in 2008 — to make phone calls and knock on doors.

“What’s different in our approach this year is massive investment in activating member volunteers,” said Brandon Davis, the service employees’ political director.

With unions representing 11.8 percent of all workers, labor volunteers canvassing in previous elections could often just knock on one in 10 doors. They might knock on a door and then have to walk two blocks to the next union household. But now they can knock on every door in a neighborhood.

“Their ability to be totally unified and focused on their message will make them ultimately the most decisive single player in the political landscape this year,” said Stephen J. Law, president of American Crossroads, a Republican super PAC whose founders include Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s top political adviser. “Groups like us, we don’t have millions of members that we can readily deploy. We tend to be more active on the airwaves and mass communications.”

In Wisconsin and Ohio last year, Republican governors pushed through legislation to curb bargaining by public employees, a move they said was needed to balance their budgets. But labor leaders viewed those efforts as part of a nationwide Republican strategy to weaken unions, long among the G.O.P’s most effective adversaries. In recent months, some 20,000 union volunteers collected more than one million signatures to hold a vote to recall Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, probably in the next few months.

“We’ve seen a systematic plan to go after Republican enemies,” said Michael Podhorzer, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s political director. “They’ve clearly tried to weaken unions and drain our treasuries. But the consequence has been more like kicking a hornets’ nest than draining our resources.”

Union strategists predict that their expanded reach will make an important difference in angling this year for white working-class voters. Labor leaders say a strong voter education campaign may swing many in this group away from Mitt Romney, the expected Republican nominee, and toward Mr. Obama.

According to a 2008 Hart Research poll, white blue-collar men over all voted for John McCain over Mr. Obama by an 18-point margin, but, in large part because of unions’ politicking, white blue-collar men in unions backed Mr. Obama by a 23-point margin.

Mr. Law of American Crossroads agreed that much of this year’s campaign would focus on the white working class. “It’s a demographic that President Obama has significant vulnerability with,” he said.

Mr. Law said American Crossroads and its sister groups, which hope to raise $300 million, are merely trying to keep up with organized labor’s war chest and ground troops. Some Republicans say labor’s campaign spending will exceed that of Republican super PACS.

“They’re lying,” said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “Citizens United will give them access to far more money than we have,” he said, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision.

The service employees will focus in part on voter registration and turnout in Hispanic neighborhoods (especially in Colorado, Florida and Nevada) and African-American neighborhoods (particularly in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.)

The A.F.L.-C.I.O. has created its own super PAC, Workers’ Voices, which plans to spend the $3.7 million it has collected largely to finance labor’s efforts to reach out to nonunion voters.

“The concept was never to be a force on TV and try to match what Karl Rove and the Koch brothers can do, because that’s a fool’s errand,” said the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s Mr. Podhorzer, referring to the billionaire industrialists and supporters of conservative causes. “We firmly believe that person-to-person contact moves the percentages our way.”