Labor to “play heavily” in state elections next year

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LOS ANGELES - Organized labor, with its community allies, will "play heavily" in state gubernatorial and legislative races next year, its top two political operatives say.

Briefing reporters Sept. 9 during the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles, the federation's Political Committee Chair Lee Saunders and Political Director Michael Podhorzer explained that's because workers found themselves under heavy attack since 2010 by anti-worker governors and legislatures elected in that year's GOP sweep.

"We'll get a huge influx of money and workers on state races because they (workers) lived under repressive regimes," Podhorzer said. Saunders, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, uttered the "play heavily comment" after saying that several governors were "hostile, and that's a polite word, to workers."

Saunders singled out , without naming them, Govs. Rick Snyder, R-Mich., John Kasich, R-Ohio, Rick Scott, R-Fla., Scott Walker, R-Wis., and former Gov. Mitch Daniels, R-Ind. Snyder, Scott, Walker, and Kasich face re-election next year.

All are known for enthusiastically pushing anti-worker laws through eager GOP-run legislatures - everything from killing collective bargaining rights for public workers in Wisconsin and Ohio to right-to-work in Michigan to privatizing the Indiana Toll Road.

The two declined to say, even proportionally, how much of the AFL-CIO's political operation would be devoted to the state races, as opposed to holding the U.S. Senate and retaking the U.S. House from its tea party-controlled GOP majority. Saunders termed a takeover "hard but not impossible." The Senate would come after the states.

Before, the federation concentrated on U.S. legislative races and the presidency. It paid for that in 2010, when the Republicans swept both Congress and the states. Podhorzer said a big reason for the sweep was that the electorate's composition had changed.

Eighty-nine million people voted in the 2006 off-year election that swept Democrats back into power on Capitol Hill, but one-fourth of them stayed home four years later, he explained. Most of those were progressives.

Twenty-nine million new voters, energized by the tea party, added to "a backlash on nine percent unemployment," replaced them at the polls. In addition, workers earning $20,000 or less yearly usually went pro-worker, pro-Democratic by 20 percentage points in off-year elections. In 2010, the margin was 11 points.

"It was the perfect storm," Podhorzer said. He also called it "unique."

"So our job is getting the 2006 voters back into the electorate," he added.

The labor movement, with its community allies, will conduct joint campaigns to register, mobilize, get out and protect progressive voters, Saunders said. Right wing GOP-enacted so-called "Voter ID" laws nationwide threaten millions of those voters - young people, the elderly, women, workers, and minorities.

"It's got to be a grassroots effort to mobilize and educate people" on the impact of state and local governments on their lives, said Saunders, whose 1.4-million-member union represents those governments' workers. But labor also must educate them on the impact of policies and politics in the Washington, notably in the GOP-run House.

And "we've got to make sure the Senate is not flipped," he added. Democrats now hold a 54-46 majority there, but defend more seats next year than the GOP does.

Labor is also going to expand "Workers Voice," Saunders said. That's the AFL-CIO SuperPAC, allowed under the controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling that lets corporations and unions spend unlimited sums to communicate with non-members. He did not put a number on its spending, which totaled several million dollars in 2011-12.

And labor will also recruit and train candidates for offices, the two said. They won't be just unionists, either.

In the past several election cycles, labor encouraged a "2000 in 2000" drive in that year and beyond to add unionists to the ranks of elected officials nationwide. It had some notable successes over the years.

After last year's election, 15 percent of Minnesota state lawmakers - plus U.S. Rep. Tim Walz - hold a union card. Hundreds of unionists hold local offices in New Jersey. And in Boston, former state Building Trades President Marty Walsh is tied for the lead just a week before the Sept. 24 Democratic primary for the open mayoral seat.

This time, the Podhorzer and Saunders said, labor and its coalition will recruit both unionists and members of the allied groups, such as environmentalists, womens' rights groups, Latinos, minorities, and LGBT groups, as political candidates.

Photo: In states like Florida, where workers are living under what the AFL-CIO's political committee chair calls an "oppressive regime" headed by GOP Gov. Rick Scott, unions expect to raise big amounts of money for the 2014 election battles. Flickr (CC)

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