Sunday, July 15, 2012 | 2 a.m.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to corporations spending unlimited amounts of money on political advertising, a move that has had resounding implications in the presidential race this year.
But the court also lifted a key restriction on labor unions, and the country’s largest unions are already ramping up to take full advantage of it.
Like corporations, unions are free to spend unlimited money on political activism. They’ve made some hefty donations to super PACs, including the one backing President Barack Obama.
But funding super PACs to spend heavily on television commercials isn’t the only strength of labor unions under the Citizens United decision. Indeed, spending by corporations and wealthy individuals has dwarfed labor union spending so far this cycle.
Instead of running TV ads, labor unions are poised to run unprecedented ground games this year, thanks to the Citizens United decision.
In previous election cycles, labor unions could only spend their general treasury money running voter persuasion campaigns targeted at their own members. They would form political action committees to run ground games outside of their membership.
But Citizens United lifted the members-only restriction on political persuasion spending.
The SEIU and the AFL-CIO are ramping up turnout operations that will far exceed targeting their own members to go to the polls on Election Day.
Labor unions are well-practiced at running the traditional turnout machine that has been key to Democratic victories. Corporations and deep-pocketed individuals lack an equal capacity to conduct a ground game, and conservative political groups haven’t yet developed the ground game knack.
That means their money will largely play on television.
That’s where the Citizens United decision — panned by liberal activists for the money floodgates it opened — was a good thing for unions.
In an interview with the Sun last week, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, emphasized that fact.
“The (corporations) outspend us 25 to 1, or somewhere in that area,” Trumka said. “They grossly outperform us. But we turn people out on the ground. We do a grassroots program and this time our program will be better, more effective. This time we get to talk to non-union workers instead of just union workers.”
He described it as “another little disadvantage” for corporations.
“And this is the first election cycle we get to use it,” Trumka said.
Trumka declined to detail the resources the AFL-CIO will put into Nevada, but noted Nevada’s battleground status will draw heavy attention from his organization.
The AFL-CIO also is focused on helping Democrat Shelley Berkley in the U.S. Senate race against Republican Dean Heller. (During the interview, Trumka quickly reaffirmed his support for Berkley in the hours following the House Ethics Committee’s decision to launch a full investigation into whether she used her office to benefit her husband’s medical practice.)
And the AFL-CIO won’t just focus its ground game on the top of the ticket. It’s planning to play an active role in five competitive state senate races and a handful of Assembly races.
“We’re going down ballot this time as well,” Trumka said.
What’s more, Trumka sees this election cycle as just the start. The AFL-CIO will erect permanent political organizations in key states such as Nevada.
“Now we’re doing this on a full-time basis,” he said. “We’ll have full-time staffing here. We’ll continue to build and next time we’ll get even deeper roots.”