Unions are gearing up to spend more than $400 million to help re-elect President Obama and lift Democrats this election year in a fight for labor's survival.
Under siege in state legislatures around the country — and fearing the consequences of a Republican in the White House — union leaders say they have little choice as they try to beat back Republican efforts to curb collective bargaining rights or limit their ability to collect dues.
"People are digging deeper," said Larry Scanlon, political director of the country's largest public workers union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "If Republicans take over the presidency, Congress and enough state legislatures, unions will be out of business, pure and simple."
Mr. Scanlon's union was the biggest overall spender in the 2010 midterm elections, doling out about $93 million to help state and federal candidates, mostly Democrats. This year, AFSCME is expected to spend at least $100 million or more on political action, including television advertising, phone banks and member canvassing. The effort is to help the president, Democrats running for the House and Senate, gubernatorial candidates and key state lawmakers.
With increased spending planned by other labor groups, including the powerful Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, unions are likely to top the $400 million they spent to help elect Mr. Obama four years ago.
Unions already spent more than $40 million last year to successfully repeal an Ohio law that restricted collective bargaining rights and to recall lawmakers who backed a similar measure in Wisconsin. They are spending millions more in a bid to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who led the charge to curb public employee union rights as a way to balance the state's budget.
But unions are being spread thin as they deal with a new wave of measures they say are designed to weaken their clout. Indiana passed a right-to-work measure earlier this month, and Republicans in New Hampshire are pushing a similar bill. Legislatures in Arizona and Utah are weighing measures to limit bargaining rights for their public employees.
"Part of the Republican strategy is to try to bleed us," said Mike Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO. "There are certainly more union members now who understand the importance of political engagement and are willing to go door-to-door and make phone calls and do campaigns."
Tim Phillips, president of the conservative anti-tax and anti-regulation group Americans for Prosperity, denied any grand strategy to weaken unions. "It's not accurate to say there's some master plan to drain resources," he said. "These are genuine public policy efforts."
But Mr. Phillips, whose group spends millions on anti-Obama and anti-union ads across the country, said he thinks that, for the first time, unions have to confront organized grass-roots opposition in a number of states.
"Americans for Prosperity is absolutely a key component in that," Mr. Phillips said. "The unions have always had the advantage, and we are now matching them."