Citizens United decision boosts union campaigning

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Citizens United is known as the court decision that gave corporations the ability to pour money into political campaigns, but it also gave unions a new political tool -- one they are hustling to put to use leveraging new technology and old experience.

In deciding the case last year, the Supreme Court also overturned provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which had prohibited unions from using dues for political communication with nonmembers.

Now union leaders are geared up to spread a pro-Obama message to their non-unionized brethren along with the underemployed and the unemployed.

Unions have become good at spreading messages member to member but have run inefficient door-to-door campaigns because they've been forced to skip non-union households.

"That breaks down natural connections between people that are in the same economic condition and that should be able to organize together politically," said Mike Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO's political director.

Now they can approach everyone -- and they plan to.

They're going to have to keep growing their ability to mobilize because they won't be able to compete dollar-for-dollar with now-unfettered corporate donations. Instead, they're going to have to run a good ground game.

"We're not using this court decision to start running 30-second attack ads and that sort of thing, but rather to help finance the expansion of conversations from union workers to all workers. That's the main impact, and we're exploring many ways to make that happen," Mr. Podhorzer said in a telephone interview.

One initiative -- piloted in the Scott Walker recall campaign in Wisconsin -- incorporates social media to personalize campaign messages. The new website allows campaign volunteers to log in with their Facebook accounts. Proprietary software then compares Facebook friends to a voter database and then populates a list of targets for volunteers to call.

"We know that people are much more likely to listen to someone they know and trust," Mr. Podhorzer said. "We're still focused on person-to-person contact but now with social media tools we can actually match our supporters with people they're friends with. ... You would be able to go online and find out which of your friends aren't registered to vote so you could take on a task of registering them to vote."

The technology amplifies what unions already are best at -- mobilization and one-on-one contact.

The social media effort sounds exciting, but its effect could turn out to be negligible, cautions Stephen Federici, a political scientist at Mercyhurst College in Erie.

"Unions already have captured their core group of voters [their own members], and as they go down the line they're going to encounter people who are less and less likely to support their cause. I don't think it's a great advantage in that regard," Mr. Federici said.

Mr. Podhorzer is optimistic, though.

"We're targeting people in the same economic plight [as union members] so the message is the same. What union members are going through is very consistent with what their neighbors are going through," he said.

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