Obama group Organizing for Action courts unions as cash grab accelerates

Officials with the advocacy group formed to support President Obama’s second-term agenda have been courting unions, a major source of Democratic campaign cash.

Unions have said they are open to bankrolling Organizing for Action (OFA), the controversial revamp of Obama’s reelection machine, and are now discussing partnerships with the nonprofit, union officials told The Hill. At least one union has already discussed a possible donation.

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Union money could be critical for the pro-Obama group now that it has ruled out accepting corporate cash. The president spoke last week at an event that included OFA’s financial backers, and the group has been on the prowl for more donations.

Senior officials at OFA, including Jim Messina, the manager of Obama’s 2012 campaign, are personally making the outreach to the biggest names in organized labor.

Messina spoke Monday at the annual legislative conference for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which endorsed Obama last year. Jon Carson, OFA’s executive director, is scheduled to meet Tuesday with officials from the big-spending American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

“[Carson] is going to brief our people about the various operations that they are setting up in the states,” said Chuck Loveless, AFSCME’s federal government affairs director. “Clearly, we have shared interests on a number of different issues, from the budget to comprehensive immigration reform.”

Others in labor said they, too, have been in touch with OFA. 

The American Federation of Teachers has been having conversations with OFA but has yet to make any firm commitments, according to an official there. A possible financial contribution has come up in those conversations.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has spent millions of dollars helping Democratic candidates and Obama, has had talks with OFA. 

“Where we have joint areas of interest, like with immigration and a fair resolution to the federal budget, we have been talking to Organizing for Action,” said Peter Colavito, SEIU’s director of government relations. 

The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, has heard from OFA as well. 

“It has been very preliminary. ‘What are you doing? Are there opportunities where our local activists can work with you?’ ” Bill Samuel, AFL-CIO’s director of government affairs, said.

One adviser to unions said OFA seems to be zeroing in on the most politically active groups. 

“I know with the bigger unions, there has been a lot of outreach from Organizing for Action,” said the adviser. “They want the big political players to help move their agenda. There’s no doubt about it.”

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OFA has come under withering criticism from watchdog groups for selling access to the president — something OFA and the White House have denied. Obama spoke to the group’s founders’ summit last week in Washington, and unions like AFSCME and the National Education Association released statements welcoming the group last week. 

Several union officials have downplayed the meetings with OFA and said they have not been asked to make a financial contribution.

“We do not feel pressure to contribute and we have not been asked yet to contribute,” Loveless said. 

“There has no been fundraising request or anything like that,” Samuel said. 

The pro-Obama group plans to disclose contributions of $250 or more every quarter. 

“OFA is committed to working with individuals and organizations that are advancing the policies that the American people voted for in November like comprehensive immigration reform and policies that strengthen the middle class,” said Katie Hogan, an OFA spokeswoman.

 IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said he told Messina on Monday that they should meet soon. Schaitberger anticipates that there will be discussion of IAFF making a financial contribution to OFA.  

“When I sit down, I fully expect that will be part of the conversation,” Schaitberger said. “To the commitment that they are going to be really involved in policy, I can’t think of a better investment when we are trying to move policy.”

In his speech to the fire fighters, Messina noted that he is the son of a Teamster organizer. 

“The fact that you are in D.C. today on a snowy day to talk about politics is incredibly important,” Messina said. “Because you’re engaged, because you’re making your voices heard, our country is going to be better off.” 

Several unions were prime political players in the 2012 election cycle, spending millions on ads while mobilizing activists to turn out voters. Labor officials have said their work helped Obama win vital battleground states like Ohio, Nevada and Wisconsin.

SEIU spent more than $32 million on independent expenditures last campaign cycle, making it one of 2012’s biggest outside spenders, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. AFSCME spent more than $17 million on independent expenditures for the 2012 elections, according to the center.

The AFL-CIO’s own super-PAC, Workers’ Voice, raised more than $21 million and spent more than $6 million on independent expenditures for the 2012 campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records. 

Unions have also opened their wallets for the president, writing big checks to support the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., and Obama’s second inauguration. IAFF, which Messina spoke to on Monday, was among the inaugural donors. 

The union adviser said he could see labor contributing to OFA, but not until they learn more about its plans and priorities.

“I know that the unions are pushing back, saying they need to see some of their agenda. In general, labor is not going to give them a blank check,” said the adviser. “If there is a specific ask down the pike, I’m sure the unions will be there.”

One factor that could cause unions to think twice about giving to OFA is the president’s push for a “grand bargain” to cut the deficit.

Obama has put forward cuts to entitlement benefits that unions strongly oppose, and the two sides could find themselves at odds when fiscal talks accelerate this summer.

“There may be issues when we diverge,” Samuel said. “We generally line up behind the president’s agenda but there are times when we don’t, like with trade bills.” 

Asked if he was worried about OFA campaigning for a grand bargain that includes cuts to Social Security and Medicare, Loveless wouldn’t speculate on how AFSCME would respond. 

“We take each day at a time. We will see how this plays out,” Loveless said.