| WASHINGTON, April 17
WASHINGTON, April 17 A year ago, organized labor
was threatening a break with President Barack Obama for being
too willing to compromise with Republicans on issues like the
debt ceiling, Bush tax cuts, free trade and workplace
Union leaders said they would no longer walk in lock step
with Democratic politicians if they did not support labor's
agenda, and hinted at more campaigns like the $10 million they
spent in an unsuccessful bid to defeat Democratic Senator
Blanche Lincoln in the 2010 Arkansas primary.
But that was last year.
Now, with former executive Mitt Romney likely to win the
Republican presidential nomination, tight election races looming
in November and attacks on unions by Republicans in state
governments, labor is firmly back in the Democratic fold.
There is still some labor discontent - AFL-CIO President
Richard Trumka last week said a free trade pact with Colombia
was "deeply disappointing" - but unions are strongly supporting
Democrats with money and boots on the ground in an election they
see as essential to their survival.
"The stakes are very, very high," said Marick Masters, a
professor at Michigan's Wayne State University who studies labor
Unions are deploying hundreds of thousands of members to
knock on doors, and are spending big to counter aggressive
efforts by Republican Super PAC groups, which have stolen the
show so far in fundraising this election cycle.
The emergence of Romney as the probable Republican nominee
has also galvanized organized labor. The multi-millionaire
former private equity executive has made attacks on "union
bosses" a feature of his campaign rhetoric.
"We've seen in the last year nothing but attacks on working
people," said Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO's political
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees, which has been battling Republican state governments
over workers' benefits, plans to spend up to $100 million this
year to help Obama and other Democrats.
Other unions will add to that total in donations to
campaigns, but also on lobbying, staff and sending members to
communicate with voters, register voters and get Democrats to
polling places on Election Day.
"If you factor in all the personnel at the state and local
level and all the costs of using those personnel, all the PAC
money, all the independent expenditures ... you are probably
going to see labor spending close to $1 billion on political
activity, including lobbying at the local, state and national
level in 2012," Masters said.
UNION MONEY TRAILS FAR BEHIND CONSERVATIVES
Union spending will still be overshadowed by outside groups
that back Republicans. Just two, American Crossroads and
Crossroads GPS, a Super PAC and a conservative non-profit
founded with the support of strategist Karl Rove, want to spend
up to $300 million on 2012 elections.
Super PACs spent more than $100 million on the Republican
primary race, including $41 million from the Romney-allied
Restore our Future mostly for negative advertisements attacking
rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
To counter the rise of the Republican groups, the AFL-CIO
has formed its own Super PAC, Workers' Voices. It has raised
just $5.4 million to date and has $4.1 million in cash on hand,
but it will use the money for what union's consider their
greatest strength, grassroots organization.
The labor federation plans to make 2012 its biggest
grassroots organizing effort. Its PAC's money will go to
mobilize 400,000 union members during 2012 to get out the vote
and knock on doors.
The unions' urgency to help Democrats is a far cry from just
a year ago when they grumbled about Obama's free trade
agreements with South Korea and Colombia and failure to support
"card check" legislation that would have made it easier to
unionize work places.
Since then, unions have been enmeshed in major political
fights in the Rust Belt against laws that would have stripped
them of many of their powers.
In Wisconsin, they gathered signatures to force Republican
Governor Scott Walker to face a recall election in June over a
new law he championed that curtailed public sector union rights.
Labor was also instrumental in a successful campaign to
strike down a law in November backed by Ohio's Republican
governor to limit state workers' bargaining rights.
Unions will need their organizing strength, since their
donations have come nowhere near the level of just a few wealthy
donors who have given millions of dollars to Republican causes.
For example, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his family
invested $16 million in a Super PAC that backed Gingrich, plus
$5 million in another PAC set up to defend the Republican
majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In contrast, labor unions gave about $1.4 million to three
Democratic PACs in the first three months of 2012, according to
federal filings on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh and Alexander Cohen;
Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Walsh)