Last Friday, at the hour when most Wisconsinites would be leaving work, a union canvasser named Chad Pickler was knocking on doors in a neighborhood on Milwaukee’s western edge. Pickler was two hours into his daily shift. He had already successfully contacted 15 voters, asking each how they planned to vote in the following week’s recall election and recording the results on an iPad that synced the data with the AFL-CIO’s computers in Washington, D.C.. Pickler, 38, wore a black hoodie, along with stone earrings and a lip ring bisecting the right side of his smile. He had a laid-back way of introducing himself to voters that initially suggested amateurism, but demonstrated a deft way of returning to questions that a voter deflected on the first pass—and he displayed what passes for institutional knowledge in the world of the professional door-knocker, like rattling a suspicious gate to draw out any dogs that could be hidden on the other side. “I’ve been doing this since ’92,” Pickler said.
He mounted the steps of one house, rang the bell, and asked for Alex. Alex was a tall man in a blue janitor’s jumper with a gleaming shaved head that revealed a scar along one side. He was surprisingly fit for what Pickler’s iPad told him was a 74-year-old. Pickler said he was taking a poll: What issue mattered most to Alex? The man began to respond, but quickly stalled; his face showed puzzlement, then frustration, then despondence. “I just had brain surgery and I can’t get the words out,” he said.
Pickler struck a reassuring tone and slowed the pace of his speech. He asked Alex about whether he supported Scott Walker or Tom Barrett in the recall election, and there the answer came quickly: Like nearly everyone Pickler had talked to that day, Alex supported Barrett, Milwaukee’s mayor and the Democratic candidate for governor. “I’m with the AFL, but I’m retired,” Alex said proudly.
“We’re with the AFL,” Pickler said, leaving a photocopied flyer about Barrett he suggested Alex could share with his children. Pickler descended the steps and looked at his iPad for the next address on his route, but continued talking about Alex. “Milwaukee’s got that old union history—socialist history—so a lot of the older guys I talk to are more political than most,” he said.
For decades, however, the AFL was prevented from speaking with men like Alex about politics. The Taft-Hartley Act that restricted corporations from trying to influence elections had been written to constrain labor unions, ensuring that they could use general treasury funds only for communication with active members and their families. Unions created affiliated PACs and other vehicles to reach the broader electorate, but the bulk of their campaign activity was concentrated on member households—in recent decades, a perpetually shrinking pool of targets.
But the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision removed those restrictions, permitting unions to spend freely on campaign activity. Some Republicans claimed that, as a result, the decision could ultimately tip the balance of power between labor and industry in the Democrats’ direction. “Unlike corporations, unions are far better positioned to take advantage of the ruling because they have virtually no other restraints on their capacity to engage in political action,” wrote Steven J. Law, a former Chamber of Commerce official now serving as president of the American Crossroads super PAC directed by Karl Rove, in the Wall Street Journal after the ruling. Union leaders scoffed at that suggestion, arguing that they could never keep up with unbridled spending by business interests. “Look, we don’t think of it as a good decision at all,” says Mike Podhorzer, the AFL’s political director.
But for all the dystopic visions conjured by those on the left about the post-Citizens United landscape, Podhorzer does allow that in legal terms the decision marked a return to terrain where organized labor had once been at its most politically fearsome. “For unions up until 1947, the kind of organizing we’re trying to recreate was norm—working folk talking to one another in their neighborhood about politics and issues. Taft-Hartley made it illegal for us to do that,” says Podhorzer. “But until the late ’40s that’s what made Republicans and conservatives very concerned about the influence of unions.”
Tuesday’s result in Wisconsin, where Walker won by a seven-point margin, does not augur well for labor’s ability to defend its state-level policy interests or exact electoral retribution against its enemies. Labor strategists have attributed their loss solely to the fact that Walker’s campaign outspent Barrett as much as tenfold, the ratio shrinking only slightly when spending from outside groups including unions is included. That conclusion seems a bit fanciful: Much of the money was spent in an effort to persuade an electorate that, exit polls confirm, was already highly polarized and had made up its minds about the recall.
But labor is right to conclude that if it is going to be an operational counterweight to conservative committees funded by large checks from corporate interests or wealthy individuals—especially in races with a more fluid, persuadable electorate—it will not come through parity in media spending. Labor will have to find a way to win in the field.
So as AFL strategists begin to analyze the results in Washington their goal will not be to catch up with the opposition in terms of spending as much as to widen the gulf between how the two sides practice politics. How much can organized labor recreate its culture from the 1940s, with new tactics for an era of both mass media and high-tech niche communication? Any such quest for a 21st-century comparative advantage will probably come down to a deeper test of the value of street-level expertise in campaigns. Is there anything in politics money can’t buy?
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Last fall, as Ohio prepared to vote on Senate Bill 5, the ban on collective bargaining pushed by Governor John Kasich, the AFL-CIO’s political department decided to run an experiment. In 2003, the AFL had launched Working America, which was in legal terms a union, even though it had no collective-bargaining ability. Working America would target swing-state neighborhoods rich in the type of working-class, culturally conservative white voters who had fallen not only out of the union’s ranks but were slipping from the Democrats’ grasp, as well. Some may have been former union members, or grew up in union families, or worked in private-sector industries that had never been unionized. “There are people who have good associations with unions from growing up, but over time—with talk radio—they’ve moved away,” says Peter Drummond, Working America’s Wisconsin state director.