Labor and the Primary Season: AFL-CIO Super PAC Will Focus on GOP

By Mike Elk

Labor-backed challenger could win House seat in NYC, but nationally, unions will hold fire for GOP opponents

WASHINGTON, D.C.—After the AFL-CIO-backed primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) in 2010, many expected the labor federation and other unions to support primary challenges to moderate or centrist Democrats during this election cycle. But so far this year, organized labor hasn’t “primaried” any Democrat up for re-election in the House or Senate. In late January, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told In These Times, “I don’t have any plans” to challenge sitting Democrats who have been less than friendly to labor’s interests by backing their opponents.

There has been one notable labor-backed primary effort this year, though: With the help of several local unions, The Working Families Party (WFP) of New York backed a candidate to challenge longtime Congressman Ed Towns (D-10th), whose district is in Brooklyn. Earlier this week, Towns announced he would not seek a 16th term. He didn’t say why, and one of his campaign strategists claimed “he would have won,” but some political observers believe the congressman bowed out because he knew he couldn’t beat two challengers.

“This is a guy who historically has always been pretty unresponsive to labor and his own constituents. He has a long record of being in bed with the tobacco companies,” says WFP Co-Chair Bob Master, who is also political director of CWA District 1, which includes New York. “In recent years he hasn’t met a trade agreement he doesn’t like or support.”

WFP of New York, founded in 1998 with the support of some unions, endorsed New York State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries earlier this year. (A full list of all unions affiliated with WFP is here.) “Hakeem Jefferies is…a real champion on workers issues,” says Master. “The right wing is never afraid to take on Republicans that they are thinking are insufficiently devoted to the ultra-right wing agenda. Too often like we are willing to tolerate people that are barely with us…just because they have a big letter D at the end of their name.”

A big part of the reason why so few Congressmen are challenged, Master says, is because of the money needed to successfully challenge sitting members of Congress. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the average amount spent by those who won House races in 2010 was $1.4 million and the average amount spent by those who won Senate races was $9.8 million.

“It’s not always easy to find challengers to raise the money to mount credible races. Many times these Democrats are winning because rich guys are giving them a lot of money,” Master says.

In 2009 though, WFP was able to successfully challenge incumbents or party-backed candidates in eight out of New York’s 51 city council seats. Master says a big reason for that is New York City’s public financing system, which will provide campaign committees with six times the amount of matchable contributions from citizens, up to $1,050.

AFL-CIO launches Super PAC, but will keep focus on GOP

Since last year, AFL-CIO’s Trumka has said that the formation of a union-backed Super PAC would help labor achieve political independence, essentially meaning less dependence on Democrats, and more reliance on “our own structure.”

Part of that structure is the labor federation’s “Workers’ Voice” Super PAC, which officially launched last week. It’s the biggest union-affiliated Super PAC and has raised  $5.4 million, with $4.1 cash in hand, as the Huffington Post reported.

Speaking at an April 12  press conference in Washington marking the launch, AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer said the Super PAC would not be used in 2012 to primary moderate Congressional Democrats.

“The Republicans in 2010 took care of that for us because several dozen Democrats who should have been, who would have been primary-ed, are not in office any more. It is a different landscape,” Podhorzer said. When asked why the AFL-CIO would not challenge moderate Democrats like Montana’s Senator Jon Tester (who has opposed proposed Department of Labor rules limiting child labor in agriculture), Podhorzer said organized labor was in a “very different context” from 2010.

“We are in a context where 365 days a year we are being attacked in state houses across the country,” Podhorzer said. “Where we have to fight those fights, we have to fight the fights for this election. And we don’t have infinite resources.”

However, Master says active primary of Democrats can pay big dividends when it comes to winning contract fights and organizing drives.

“Certainly when we get in these contract fights, we can count on the people we elected to stand with us and criticize management. In the case of the Cablevision [contract fight in New York City], it really did seem like the engagement of the elected officials that we helped elect gave a tremendous sense of confidence and energy to the workers,” says Master.

Nationally, labor leaders have pledged to spend $400 million in independent expenditures through various committees to back Democrats in this election. Masters thinks some of that money could be used to successfully target moderate Democrats in urban, heavily Democratic congressional districts like Ed Towns’, if organized labor coordinated it well.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times, where this post originally appeared.

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