During 2009 and 2010, labor unions reported spending a combined $46.7 million on messaging designed to aide their preferred federal political candidates, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. Those candidates were overwhelmingly Democrats. This figure represents 16 percent of all such spending by non-party committees -- the lowest amount in years, according to the Center's research.
By contrast, the four biggest-spending conservative groups together accounted for about $1 of every $3 spent on these types of political advertisements.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Action Network, American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies reported spending a combined $97.6 million during the 2010 election cycle.
Obama refused to make contributions to local labor organizations and other political outfits in places like South Carolina and Philadelphia, payments tolerated for years by Democratic campaigns but often derided as walking-around money. And, later in the campaign, Obama’s team utilized labor unions to a far lesser extent than previous Democratic nominees.
“Most of the union world was not with them in the primary. Those that were with them came on after Edwards started to fail. It wasn’t an immediate marriage,” said a veteran Democratic consultant close to Obama’s campaign.
“Labor was never a very appreciated entity in the Obama organizing experience. They kind of dealt with them as dinosaurs and has-beens.”
Other Democrats, who asked not to be named in order to offer their frank assessments of the labor movement, said unions have tried to keep up with changing technology, but their political tactics remain a relic.
Whether it’s adopting Obama’s organizing tactics or embracing social media, labor has fallen behind. Conversely, the business community, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and outside groups like American Crossroads, has been much more proactive in reaching out to voters.
Labor’s declining importance to the Democratic Party mirrors the changing face of the party. As Democrats rely more on a diverse and booming coalition of minorities, white voters, particularly men, are increasingly voting Republican. That, former SEIU head Andy Stern said, is a warning sign for Democrats.
“The only white men who have been voting Democratic are white union members. You’d think that would be a compelling case for Democrats, for self-preservation, to create more union members. That argument has failed miserably,” he said. “I think we have a political equation that works that has not translated to a change of behavior.”