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AFL-CIO forms ‘super PAC’ to motivate voters

This news story was published on April 13, 2012.
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By Melanie Mason, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — A “super PAC” created by an influential labor organization will focus its efforts on motivating voters on the ground, rather than financing television commercials.

“It’s not going to be about FEC deadlines, television ads or the usual super PAC activity. It’s about building a new way for workers to connect,” said Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO, at a news conference Thursday morning detailing the super PAC’s strategy.

Unlike past union efforts, the Workers Voices super political action committee will be able to reach out to all workers, including nonunion ones. That’s one of the byproducts of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which paved the way for individuals, corporations and unions to give unlimited contributions to independent political committees.

In filings due to the Federal Election Commission next week, Workers Voices will report a total $5.4 million raised this cycle and $4.1 million cash on hand as of March 31. All funds have come from the AFL-CIO, although the group will also solicit money from nonunion sources, including Internet fundraising.

Unions are expected to spend about $400 million on elections this cycle from local races, to vulnerable Democrats in Congress including Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, to President Barack Obama’s re-election effort. But officials in the labor movement expect corporations and wealthy conservative donors to counter with a tsunami of money that will exceed labor’s resources.

“We were outspent 20-1 last time (in 2010), and it will probably be more than 20-1 this time,” said Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO’s political director. “We’re going to have to out-organize more than 20-1.”

In the new super PAC era, “if workers and the middle class were going to have a chance to recover their voice and their power in America, we had to adapt a new strategy,” Podhorzer added.

That strategy, in part, looks to the 14,000 work sites represented by unions in the AFL-CIO. A work site coordinator has been designated for each site, and Workers’ Voice looks to equip those coordinators and other activists with a “toolbox,” containing what Podhorzer describes as the nuts and bolts of being an effective organizer.

Before the Citizens United ruling, union members had to limit their political advocacy to fellow union members; now, working through the super PAC structure, those restrictions do not apply.

“Now, the legal handcuffs to keep them from talking to friends and neighbors have been taken off,” Podhorzer said.

In addition to voter contact, the committee will also focus on voter registration — and maintaining an engaged network of activists after Election Day. The grassroots approach marks a change in tactics for the labor movement, which had typically used direct donations to candidates and party committees to influence elections. Workers’ Voice will not make contributions to candidates or committees, Podhorzers said; the AFL-CIO will continue to do so, but “with a much higher standard.”

Brushing aside queries about the group’s budget or fundraising goals, Podhorzer asserted, “it’s not about the money.”

“The money we’re raising is to empower workers,” he said. “That’s a lot less expensive than running TV ads.”

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