AFL-CIO's Obama Endorsement Brings More Bodies And New Risks

On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO started off its campaign season in a familiar way: endorsing the Democratic candidate Barack Obama. What's shifting, though, is how it plans to participate.

Labor unions have long been a powerful force in Democratic Party politics, primarily in mobilizing their millions of members to turn out at the polls. But this year, labor unions say the mobilization could prove even more powerful, despite recent years of unprecedented -- and largely successful -- attacks from conservative politicians, waning membership and declining public support.

While unions say they can't counter the money that conservative donors have poured into super PACS, they have these groups beat when it comes to arranging for bodies on the ground. The AFL-CIO said it will deploy more members than in previous years -- at least 400,000, as The New York Times reported -- many of them in key swing states, to knock on doors and register voters.

"We will be outspent, but we'll have the resources that we need to do an unprecedented ground campaign," said Jeff Hauser, an AFL-CIO representative.

The controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, opened the door for political action committees to accept unlimited donations and because of this has received steady criticism from labor unions. The AFL-CIO's president, Richard Trumka, has said the ruling "further tilted the playing field in favor of the 1 percent."

But the ruling also opened a crucial door for union organizers looking to turn out the vote: access to nonunion homes. In 2008, union organizers walking door-to-door were allowed to only visit the homes of other union members -- resulting in their having to travel miles between homes. Now they can visit anyone.

Labor advocates say that on-the-ground canvassing can be more persuasive than TV ads and that this strategy could prove to be a powerful tool for organized labor.

"Mainly the unions are putting out tremendous energy and mobilization to defend their existence," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "But some of this energy will now be deployed to get Obama re-elected, and we're going to have a real test of whether or not tremendous amounts of money for advertising can sway voters more than hundreds of thousands of people on the ground."

But political organizing experts said that during a time of waning public approval for organized labor, when union members knock on the doors of nonunion homes, it could backfire. A Gallup Poll in August found approval for labor unions near a record low, at 52 percent.

"I think that the potential is there but they need to be very careful in how they choose the homes they visit," said Kevin Arceneaux, a political science professor at Temple University, commenting on the unions' strategy for expansion of a ground campaign.

In his research, Arceneaux has found that in some cases, when voters are reached at home, if they don't trust the group knocking at their doors (such as a union), they may choose to vote for other candidates, even if they support the particular issue raised by the canvasser.

"As an overall strategy, door campaigning can be more effective in increasing voter turnout than TV advertising, but it can definitely backfire," Arceneaux said.