AFL-CIO turns to social media to build political strength

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An intriguing new political organizing tool is seeking to take the greatest asset of organized labor -- its strength in numbers -- and multiply it with the help of social media.

The new technology from the AFL-CIO's political arm, unveiled Tuesday, allows users to build political networks through their Facebook contacts and find local volunteer events like phone-banks or door-knocking. Users are awarded points for every time they do campaign work, which they can use to direct political help -- such as direct mail pieces or Web advertisements -- to candidates they support.

The idea is not just to give people incentives, "but to change the way they engage in politics, and multiply the effect of what they do," said AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer. "There have been systems that seem similar -- you register 100 people and get a bumper sticker and that's the end of the process. Here you register 100 and you get canvassers for Mark Critz. It all stays in the real world and in politics."

The initiative is called "RePurpose." Leaders from the 12 million-member union federation and its political arm, Workers' Voice, who largely support President Barack Obama and other Democrats, said it will help them compete with the unfettered spending of Republican-supporting SuperPACs and nonprofits allowed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and related legal changes.

"But instead of joining them in the gutter, Workers' Voice will counter their cynicism by combining old-fashioned energy with cutting edge technology," said an AFL-CIO statement on the effort. "Increasing grassroots organizing, field programs and voter registration will not only help us succeed in the 2012 elections but help build and maintain a permanent progressive infrastructure for future legislative and political work."

Strangely enough, the new technological effort could not have been birthed without the Supreme Court's decision. While the 2010 decision allowed unlimited corporate and union spending on political ads, it also allowed unions for the first time to communicate with non-union members about political issues.

"Of all the unintended consequences of Citizens United, this may be the most remarkable: the AFL-CIO crowdsourcing its political program," wrote campaign technology expert Sasha Issenberg in Slate Tuesday.

A related AFL-CIO application called "Friends and Neighbors" is integrated with Facebook so users can make personal appeals to like-minded friends (the site cross-checks Facebook contacts with voter registration databases) to support candidates, as well as send them personalized mailers embossed with a photo of the user. "The goal is that we know a contact from a trusted friend is much more successful than a contact from a stranger," said AFL-CIO Digital Department Director Jared Schwartz in a video explaining the technology.

Organized labor has to be creative in its efforts as it cannot compete with the spending by GOP-supporting SuperPACs and nonprofits. Data released Monday by NBC News shows such outside groups have spent nearly half of the $605.7 million poured into television and radio ads during this year's presidential race, and nearly three-quarters of that spending was on behalf of Republican nominee Mitt Romney. (In Pennsylvania pro-Romney outside groups accounted for $11.2 million of the $19.3 million spent on ads.)

The traditional methods of union organizing were on display at an AFL-CIO action on the state's voter identification bill Downtown Tuesday morning. Representatives of several unions spoke out against the bill, saying it would suppress votes of elderly and college voters who do not drive. Clutching wet clipboards in the rain outside the PennDOT license center on Smithfield Street, activists helped people sign up for an ID, while also having voter registration forms on hand for those not on the rolls.

The goal of the new labor initiative is to take that kind of old-fashioned work a few steps further.

"We are meeting people here today, who are saying 'You know what, I'm now signing up to be a poll monitor.' That wasn't their intent when they came down here, but they're fired up and ready to go," said AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt-Baker. "What they can do through RePurpose is say 'I'm Jane Doe, I've just decided to become a poll monitor' and they can Tweet out and email out and Facebook to their friends and challenge them, saying 'I'm doing it, join me.' "

Those who log in to the RePurpose program from the Pittsburgh area are given more than 60 possible volunteer events to choose from, from phone banks Downtown to United Steelworkers events in Johnstown (the home of Mr. Critz, a Democratic congressman running against Republican Keith Rothfus), to other activities in West Virginia and eastern Ohio.

For every phone call made, participants are awarded 3 points, which are recorded by union coordinators and credited to a user's account. Every door knocked is 7 points. A user who gathers 700 points can order up a digital ad for a candidate (all candidates have to be endorsed by the AFL-CIO), and 25,000 points earns the user his or her own phone bank.

"What we see in the union movement is that people want to have more of an effect on what they do," said Mr. Podhorzer. "The idea of RePurpose is if you work hard, then you are able to exercise your judgment and your influence on the political processes. Instead of trying to engage more activists in preset programs, we're trying to change fundamentally how workers engage in politics."

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Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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