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Richard Trumka
Richard Trumka (AFL-CIO)
In May, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka:
suggested, without naming names, that organized labor would withhold support from Democratic incumbents who had not fought hard enough against Republican efforts to curb collective bargaining or cut social programs.

"Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate," he said in a clear warning to Democrats who have not gone to bat for labor. "It is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country.

Today, a headline in The Hill says that "labor will stand by Obama." The article is based on an interview with AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer:

"I don't think that the labor movement will be on the sidelines with President Obama," he said in a sit-down interview with The Hill Wednesday.

Podhorzer said that the union is likely to announce this fall that it's creating a so-called "super PAC" that can spend and receive unlimited amounts of campaign donations. Podhorzer said the labor federation has been limited by election laws to contacting just its own members but with a super PAC, the AFL-CIO can expand its outreach to non-union voters as well.

Is this a walkback? Well, if Trumka didn't name names, he certainly didn't name Obama, and The Hill characterizes it as "part of the revamped political strategy first outlined by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka this May, when he said that the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, would reduce its emphasis on directly helping candidates." At the same time, it seems intended to let the Democratic party know that unions aren't going anywhere. In that vein, Podhorzer said the AFL-CIO won't be engaging in primaries against incumbent Democrats, as it did last cycle with Bill Halter's challenge to Blanche Lincoln, information characterized by The Hill as that "the AFL-CIO appears to have learned its lesson."

On the other hand, Podhorzer says that unions will "basically stay on the sidelines for the candidates for the Democrats that you would put in the Lincoln category."

The picture, in other words, is in shades of gray that are not yet fully determined. Unions will be putting money into elections, including into communications with non-members, and will be involved in the presidential race to some degree, but they will be staying on the sidelines of races involving Democrats who don't actively support workers. The question is, do they hold firm and refuse to help lousy Democrats, or do they ultimately bow to pressure to support even them? Do they reduce their spending on Obama and Senate and House races and put that money toward downballot races or workplace organizing?

Unions were never just going to stay out of electoral politics. But holding closely to a "better Democrats" strategy could have a real impact on key races, and would send a message to the Democratic party that union support has to be earned.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Thu Aug 18, 2011 at 10:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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