WASHINGTON -- In a move described as unprecedented in the history of organized labor, the largest union-affiliated super PAC will relinquish control of its funds, giving union and non-union members the chance to have direct say over its $4.1 million campaign war chest.
Workers' Voice, the super PAC arm of the AFL-CIO, will unveil on Thursday a new program designed to incentivize political engagement by offering slices of power over a major part of its election-year operations.
Participants who undertake campaign activities -- phone banking, neighborhood canvassing, field program volunteering and others -- will be rewarded the equivalent of super PAC currency. That currency, in turn, can be used to direct which candidates and issues Workers' Voice supports and how they support them, be it through online advertising, voter registration, Get Out The Vote operations or other mechanisms.
"We are kind of jumping off a cliff and opening ourselves up to democracy. We are going to empower people and empower workers in a way that's not been done before," said Workers' Voice spokesman Eddie Vale. "There may be a congressional race that isn't much on people's radar in D.C. But if there are a hundred activists in that congressional district who get their asses out of bed every morning and make phone calls and knock on doors, we feel they have earned the right to put [our] resources there."
Workers' Voice has yet to finalize the algorithm that will determine the amount of currency each campaign activity will be worth. That will come after the group monitors initial reactions to the program. But users looking to earn currency will be able to choose an activity to complete from an online menu (direct contributions to a candidate or committee, which the super PAC is prohibited from making, are not on the list). In addition to that virtual marketplace, participants will also be allowed to tag contributions to the super PAC for a specific type of action for an individual candidate, as opposed to donating money to the general election fund.
"If you wanted to make a $50,000 contribution to drive X number of phone calls on behalf of a candidate you like or against a candidate that you hate, you can do that," said Vale. "This is a new incentive model that no one has every tried. I think we have a real shot at doing something unique and meaningful here."
Collectively, the reforms could constitute a dramatic revamping of both the traditional union political shop and the political action committee structure. Currently, decisions over how money is spent on elections are strictly within the purview of officials inside the union or running the PAC. That setup lends itself to a simplified and consistent political strategy. But with respect to organize labor, it also leads to conservative criticism that union dues are being used without member input or against their wishes.
"Any union member can already check off and not have any of their money go to political purposes," Vale said, by way of addressing that criticism, which Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, has articulated at recent campaign stops. "This wasn't created in response to Romney's comments. But it is a very good answer to their canard that there is some secret union boss in D.C. making these decisions, because this is literally not just any rank-and-file union member making decisions, this is any member of the general public."
Indeed, under the new rubric, supporters of a certain candidate would receive the equivalent of a matching donation from the super PAC for the time and work they put into campaigning. That could result in a heavy strain on the group's resources. But Vale was adamant that Workers' Voice would "have enough resources to spend on our priorities as well." It currently has $4.1 million cash on hand, but it can accept unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and unions.
The group is not hiring anyone new to manage the operation. Current employees will monitor it closely and in real time to ensure that participants aren't gaming the system, perhaps by claiming to have knocked on more doors or placed more calls than they actually did.
Organizers at Workers' Voice said that they believe hundreds of thousands of people will participate in the new program. The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling allows union groups to communicate with union and non-union members alike. That freedom, combined with labor's current numbers –- the AFL-CIO alone has 11 million members –- provide a vast network of potential participants.
"Nothing even close to this has been done before," said Vale. "Nothing like this has been done in politics that I know of."