Labor unions are sitting on at least $122 million in cash that can be spent on politics — more than corporate political action committees have on hand — and have already sent millions to Democratic super PACs that are purchasing ad buys daily.
With unions’ traditional specialty being “get-out-the-vote” rather than persuasion, it is now, in the final weeks of the campaign, that much of those funds stand to be spent.
Led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) with $13 million in the bank and the United Auto Workers (UAW) at $6.3 million, they can give that money in unlimited amounts, rather than $2,500 at a time, to the gamut of Democratic super PACs that exist thanks to a 2010 court ruling Democrats mostly denounced.
Seven unions have also established their own super PACs. Since July, those super PACs have run $42 million worth of ads and canvassing, including $14 million in the presidential race, $3.8 million on the Wisconsin Senate race and $2.8 million on the Ohio Senate race, plus $13 million on House candidates.
In recent weeks, there have been signs that they are readying more ads. In late September, the National Education Association transferred $3.3 million to its super PAC, and the AFL-CIO transferred $3.1 million.
The SEIU on Monday disbursed $2.2 million in salaries for canvassers from Sunday through Election Day. On Tuesday, it announced “aggressive” ad buys to “get out the vote in the African American and Latino communities.”
The radio ads accuse Mitt Romney of trying to suppress votes, and say that Hispanics and blacks would be playing into his hands if they didn’t vote.
Unions have also propped up so-called “boutique super PACs” — groups that unions wholly fund but that do not identify publicly as union fronts. The SEIU has given $1.8 million to an otherwise-unfunded group calling itself the Florida Freedom PAC to run pro-Obama ads.
The NEA and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees have each given a half-million to Moving Ohio Forward. Unions have been the sole funders of each group, the latter of which has yet to begin spending.
When it comes to establishment Democratic super PACs, unions have made Senate races the priority, sending $11 million to Majority PAC, which is focused on that chamber, followed by $7 million to House Majority PAC.
Only $6 million of the $50 million raised by the Obama re-election super PAC, Priorities USA, has come from unions — suggesting that in an age in which celebrities and lawyers can give $1 million, unions could be less-essential money machines than they once were.
But unions have worked closely with Priorities on jointly financed ads, presenting a unified front even as a more splinted set of groups works on the Republican side, and lets Priorities benefit from SEIU’s Spanish-language experience in a slew of ads that moved the needle among that demographic.
“Unions have been critical partners and supporters of our effort to demonstrate how Romney’s policies would help multimillionaires like himself at the expense of hardworking families,” Priorities spokesman Brennan Bilberry said.
In addition, unions can spend directly from their treasuries — a privilege that came alongside corporations’ right to spend on politics after the Citizens United court ruling. AFSCME has spent $2.7 million from its general fund in recent months, while the AFL-CIO has spent $1 million through a nonprofit called Working America.
But the largest union-connected nonprofit is an aggressive group called Patriot Majority, with a self-professed mission to fight back against the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers’ “greed agenda” by adopting their tactics: making large ad buys — $5.3 million worth in recent months — without disclosing the source of its funds.
In the past, records show, the group has received much of its funding from AFSCME, and two teachers unions have given nearly a half-million dollars in recent months, according to the union PACs’ filings.
The AFL-CIO filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Citizens United case, hoping that an unlimited right to spend its money on ads would bring back labor’s prominence.
But Federal Election Commission filings make clear that, despite unions’ significant efforts on the liberal side, conservatives have had an advantage of well over $100 million in outside money spent. Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-connected group, will spend $100 million alone, and the Chamber of Commerce has spent $29 million on politics.
The AFL-CIO has since had a change of heart, and unions now regularly assail the regulations that have flooded the airwaves with corporate money.
AFL-CIO, AFSCME and SEIU all did not return requests for comment.