Unions Ramp Up Political Efforts as Labor Issues Take Center Stage

As the 2012 election heats up and the economy continues to struggle, labor unions are becoming a bigger focus of Republicans and Democrats, and the AFL-CIO is looking to exert its influence by spending more of its money to support President Obama.

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, speaking in New Hampshire Wednesday, again championed the right-to-work issue. It’s an irritant to unions because it allows businesses in right-to-work states to be open, or non-union shops.

“Right-to-work states over the last decade added three million new jobs,” Romney said. “Forced union states lost a million jobs. I don't want to discriminate against right-to-work states. I like right-to-work states. I want those jobs.”

Labor unions have been a dependable part of President Obama's base. They spent $400 million in 2008 to help get him elected.

Part of the president's message to voters is that unions, even with declining membership in recent years, are still an important part of the nation's economic structure.

Speaking last week in Iowa, President Obama said, “I speak particularly to young people, because you've grown up at a time when in a lot of circles "union" somehow is a dirty word -- to understand all this is, is people joining together so they've got a little more leverage.”

Political analyst Larry Sabato says the right-to-work versus unions battle ties into what will likely be the top issue in the presidential election next year -- fixing the troubled economy.

“From a Republican perspective, it's about strengthening businesses and reducing regulation,” Sabato said. “From the Democratic side, it's about supporting working families and supporting unions, and so it is a very different vision of how you build a strong economy.”

A large chunk of the union money in that fight may come from a new super-PAC, or political action committee, that the AFL-CIO is creating to boost Democratic candidates and union causes.

“We have been seeing hundreds of millions of dollars pour into right-wing campaigns, Republican campaigns,” said Stewart Acuff, the chief of staff of a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO. “It is an effort by us to counter that corporate money assault.”

The AFL-CIO has specifically criticized American Crossroads -- founded by former Bush senior adviser Karl Rove -- as "right-wing fringe" and a "corporate front group."

American Crossroads says the AFL-CIO super-PAC is a “new tool” that will allow unions to "dip into their members' treasury for even more political activity."

There likely will be more campaign talk about unions versus the right-to-work around Labor Day when President Obama speaks at a union-organized event in Detroit. The next day, former Gov. Mitt Romney is expected to lay out his jobs plan.