AFL-CIO: Labor will stand by Obama

Organized labor won't sit out President Obama's reelection campaign and let a Republican win the presidency, the AFL-CIO's political director said Wednesday.

Despite the frustration labor activists have expressed toward the administration for the deals it has cut with congressional Republicans, Obama is still a better alternative to a potential Republican president, said Michael Podhorzer, the labor federation's top politics officer.

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"I don't think that the labor movement will be on the sidelines with President Obama," he said in a sit-down interview with The Hill Wednesday.

Podhorzer said that the union is likely to announce this fall that it's creating a so-called "super-PAC" that can spend and receive unlimited amounts of campaign donations. Podhorzer said the labor federation has been limited by election laws to contacting just its own members but that with a super-PAC, the AFL-CIO can expand its outreach to non-union voters as well.

"It's not meant to compete with Karl Rove and raise hundreds of millions of dollars," Podhorzer qualified.

It's part of the revamped political strategy first outlined by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka this May, when he said that the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, would reduce its emphasis on directly helping candidates. That announcement was driven, in part, by frustration that labor-supported Democrats failed to deliver on their promises to working voters.

The new strategy places an emphasis on building grassroots infrastructure and voter mobilization, especially on the state level, where states like Wisconsin and Ohio have become the front-lines for battles over collective bargaining rights. But the expanded focus won't necessarily come at the expense of the AFL-CIO's traditional role in federal races.

"We're not moving away from national politics to focus on the states. We just have to do both," Podhorzer said. "I think we're going to continue to be involved in Senate races, in governors' races, House races and in the presidential race."

Still, Democrats in Washington suffer from a disconnect with the AFL-CIO and other members of the labor community. Unions believe that Democrats aren't doing enough to spur job creation, and the abandonment of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) — often called "card check" by business groups — and a government-run insurance program called "the public option" in healthcare reform were deeply disappointing to the labor movement.

The White House has also sought to pass this year a trio of trade deals long opposed by labor, and attempts to loosen regulations and cut government spending by the administration have only angered labor more.

"There's no question that the Obama administration has done many things that have helped working people and that have been positive for the labor movement," Podhorzer said. "But on the other hand, this is the Democratic Party; it was elected on a platform to do much, much, much, much more."

Unions — not just the AFL-CIO — now must reconcile their frustration with Democrats, whom they've traditionally supported, with the looming threat of a Republican president and GOP control of both houses of Congress. They wrestle with why it makes sense to work to elect this president and Democrats down-ballot when they have faced so many disappointments since the 2008 election.

"The paradigm that has prevailed for a long, long time is that if you're not going to support Democrats, where do you have to go?" Podhorzer asked. "And certainly the Republican Party is as anti-worker and anti-labor as you can imagine."

But that doesn't mean that all Democrats should count on labor's support. The AFL-CIO appears to have learned its lesson after mounting a costly primary campaign to defeat former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). That effort fell short, and Lincoln was sufficiently crippled in the general election, where she lost her seat.

The AFL-CIO isn't looking to fight similar primary challenges this cycle.

"I think our approach would be more toward investing our resources in races where there is a really pro-worker candidate and where there is a good opportunity to win," Podhorzer said, "and to basically stay on the sidelines for the candidates for the Democrats that you would put in the Lincoln category."

To that end, about a half-dozen Democratic incumbent senators or candidates — Podhorzer named Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown as an example — could expect the labor federation's support. Elizabeth Warren would also be a good candidate for labor support if she runs against Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), according to Podhorzer. The AFL-CIO's involvement in House races is difficult to peg, he said, because of ongoing redistricting fights.

But the union could still send a message to Democrats by boycotting the party's 2012 convention in Charlotte, which some AFL-CIO affiliates are considering, according to an Associated Press report last week. The union's governing council will monitor the situation, Podhorzer said, and make a decision largely "determined by what the Democratic Party does between now and the end of the year."

That decision could rest on how a newly-formed supercommittee of lawmakers charged with cutting at least $1.5 trillion out of the federal budget go about their job. Podhorzer said he could not see the AFL-CIO supporting any deal by the supercommittee that would not raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

Though unhappy with the president at times, the AFL-CIO will likely go through its formal process sometime next year to officially endorse Obama, considering his GOP opponents.

"I think the Republicans are putting him in a good position," Podhorzer said.