09/14/2010 11:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

AFL-CIO Debated Over How Hard To Attack Republicans

A massive mail campaign launched by the AFL-CIO this week was the subject of some debate within the ranks over how effective it would be for the union federation to aggressively attack Republican politicians.

On Monday, the AFL-CIO sent out more than two million mail pieces in a host of House, Senate and gubernatorial races that took the hatchet to GOP candidates. The pieces highlighted some of the most outlandish, anti-union positions taken by specific candidates, going so far as to label certain nominees "anti-worker" and "anti-retiree."

Coming just months before the election, the mailers underscored the extent to which the AFL-CIO has taken on the role of aggressor in the current campaign climate. While other groups, committees and candidates have spent their time defending or distancing themselves from the president's agenda, the union federation has used its considerable resources to put the spotlight on the opposition.

The pursuit of this posture was not done without debate. Back in late July, a subdivision of the AFL-CIO, the Building & Construction Trades Department (BCTD), contracted a communications firm to chart out the best and most effective way to reach union voters. The findings, which were presented to the AFL-CIO's Political Director Karen Ackerman, stressed that members respond best when they feel allied with politicians promoting their interests. Simply attacking Republicans, the memo concluded, carries the risk of turning off recipients who recoil at partisan bickering.

"The use of attacking, battling, fighting and combative language needs to be avoided at all costs! It will only serve to reinforce the frame of "partisan bickering" that leaves our members in the cold and has them feeling as though they are 'trapped in the system,'" the memo read. "It will also remind our members of the many negative forces that are impacting their lives."

"Again, we need to exercise caution to not activate the frame of "partisan battle" by attacking Republicans in an overt fashion."


Produced by the firm Olson Zaltman Associates, the memo was passed along to the Huffington Post on Monday by a self-described labor official who accuses the AFL-CIO of overseeing a "colossal waste of money" by ignoring its advice.

But while the content of the BCTD memo clearly is more tempered than the final mailers produced by the AFL-CIO, officials at both offices stressed their approval of the final product. Communications strategy, they added, is an evolving process whose authors aren't always going to be in agreement; certainly not those whose advice wasn't taken (a reference to the leaker).

"There is always frustration with mail pieces," said Mike Monroe, the chief of staff for the Building Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. "Everyone always feels you can do better... But we are happy with the final products. You have to note the dated nature of this memo. There is so much that has occurred between then and now."

As Monroe noted, the memo from late July is a snapshot of his group's political thinking at that particular point in time. BCTD is just one department within the AFL-CIO. Both they and others have done various communications studies done since then, with differing conclusions. The political landscape has changed as well, most notably with the increased likelihood that Republicans could end up controlling Congress.

In that respect, the evolution of the Building & Construction Trades Department's communications strategy provides a window into the psyche of some union officials heading into this election. Once wary of turning members off by using partisan-driven rhetoric, the BCTD has grown increasingly comfortable with -- if not resigned to -- the idea that sharp contrasts must be made. But they aren't entirely sold that the caution expressed in the July memo is a bad idea.

"I wouldn't say they convinced us that the research was wrong. I think we convinced them that you have to be mindful in telling a broader story. It was coming to the middle," said Monroe. "You can't just go with the boilerplate Republicans bad, Democrats good vote for them. You need to tell a story. You can still point to Republican obstructionism... but you can't just go out and say it's the red team versus the blue team, vote for the blue team."