Citizens United: How the AFL-CIO is exploiting its newfound liberty to influence campaigns.

Citizens United Gave Unions More Power, Too. Can the AFL-CIO Get Obama Re-elected?

Citizens United Gave Unions More Power, Too. Can the AFL-CIO Get Obama Re-elected?

The new science of winning campaigns.
June 8 2012 12:28 PM

A New Job for Labor

Citizens United didn’t just permit corporations to spend freely on elections; it opened the door to unions, too. Can the AFL-CIO get Obama re-elected?

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One could see a different approach at the Madison Labor Temple, the recall supporters’ primary staging area in the capital. When Barrett started drawing attention to a Walker plan to privatize state lands, an AFL data analyst matched a publicly available list of Wisconsinites with hunting and fishing licenses to the union rolls, and had phone bank volunteers deliver a special persuasion message to them—even though many might have been too conservative to fall into labor’s usual pool of targets. Outside the temple, the new, post-Citizens United reach of these tactics were visible: Canvassers who were dispatched across liberal Dane County no longer had to skip houses without union members, an adjustment that would improve the efficiency of door-knocking operations and likely open up new neighborhoods for focus. “The doors are better just because you’re more likely to actually speak to someone. People just don’t answer the phone these days—damn caller ID,” said Katheryn Burns, a K-1 teacher in Madison who had been working on the recall on nights and weekends. “Once you get people at the doors they’re pretty friendly.”

The newest component of the AFL’s program, however, was one that had no face-to-face component at all. This spring, the AFL launched its own super PAC, Workers’ Voice, the center of which was an online platform called Friends and Neighbors. Workers’ Voice bought online ads inviting liberals to enlist as volunteers, at which point they were asked to link their Facebook accounts to Friends and Neighbors. The AFL’s proprietary code trawled through a volunteer’s social network, looking to match up names to the roster of Wisconsin voters whom the AFL’s microtargeting models had identified as targets for its campaign contact. Then volunteers were given the chance to call their acquaintances directly from the site. “The hope is that it is going to be a resource for the economically progressive community, and to be a way to reach people who are young and don’t have much exposure to unions,” says Podhorzer.

In terms of software, none of this is novel: Millions of volunteer calls were placed through Barack Obama’s website in 2008, and the RNC just launched a home-calling tool as part of its Social Victory Center. Others have developed the ability to match Facebook accounts to a voter file and classify friend networks based on their state or district, party, or other demographic categories. But Workers Voice represented a radical new role for the institution behind it: The ideal interaction, from the AFL perspective, was a liberal activist with no labor ties calling friends who also were not union members.


Even if it resembled a high-tech upgrade to Podhorzer’s Edenic pre-Taft-Hartley America, this vision of the union as a facilitator of interactions between individuals with whom it had no economic relationship represented a major departure from the culture of control and self-interest that often exists around union activity. Still, Workers’ Voice was far from a free-for-all: The AFL’s microtargeting selected which friends a volunteer would be asked to call, depending on its campaign strategy. All the data collected about one’s social network and generated through the conversations, including preferred phone numbers, were fed back in to the AFL’s databases to refine its future projections and direct door-knocking operations. Soon the data generated in Wisconsin will be available for analysis in Washington, allowing labor leaders to more keenly attribute at least some blame for Barrett’s dismal performance.

A lot of things could have gone wrong. Labor officials were cheered to see exit polls showing that one-third of voters came from current union households, a big jump from the 2010 rate, but Barrett won only 62 percent of their votes. Labor’s aggressive persuasion efforts could have had a backlash effect, or the unions’ targeting could have simply missed its mark, helping to mobilize the wrong voters. (What if those hunters and fishers cared less about Walker’s view on public lands than his deficit-cutting plans and the AFL delivered an inadvertent reminder to vote for him?) In a highly polarized, emotional environment, voters may have been wary of sharing an unpopular opinion in face-to-face encounters. Indeed, union representatives went into election day with what now seem to be potentially inflated assessments of their support: Mark Hoffman, the business manager for a Madison-area local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said just hours before the polls opened that he had spoken to all 857 of his members—and that all but two told him they were voting for Barrett.

The AFL left Wisconsin with reams of new data on the effectiveness of those various programs, although Podhorzer says that the institution’s changed role will force him to refine new metrics for measuring success in political communication. The experimental methods used in Ohio were based on clinical trials that isolated voters to discern the effects of specific top-down communication. An effort based on pulsing ideas through existing social relationships would require the tools of epidemiology. “The premise of what we’re doing is that it’s built the way the world works,” Podhorzer says. “The way the world works is that people live in networks and not in isolation.”

The AFL may adjust its tactics after Wisconsin, but also conclude that it was a massive strategic failure that led to the embarrassing loss. As many Democrats said quietly for months, labor may have picked the wrong fight. It was unable to rally around a single candidate and wasted its energies in a contested primary. By the time Barrett became the nominee a month ago, the majority public opinion may have so stiffened in its skepticism of the recall—and a fundamental sympathy to Walker’s predicament—that no amount of canvassing or friend-to-friend phone calls could have softened it.