Citizen's United Ruling Benefits Union Campaigners

Corporations weren't the only ones to benefit from the Citizens United ruling. The decision lets union activists mobilize non-union workers for the elections — something that had been illegal since 1947. The beleaguered labor movement hopes it will help in November.

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Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are spending a lot of time in Ohio this week. The battleground state is being pounded with TV ads. Many of the pro-Romney spots come from the outside groups that sprang up after the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. But that decision isn't just benefiting conservative causes.

NPR's Peter Overby reports from Ohio on what Citizens United has done for organized labor.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: On South Dixie Highway in Lima, Ohio, is a wide, low building; the local of the Laborers International Union. And in a small office there, four union members are spending the late afternoon working the phones.

CINDY SLUSSER: Deborah, my name is Cindy and I'm a volunteer with the Workers' Voice.

GEORGE JEFFRIES: Raymond, my name is George and I'm a volunteer with the Workers' Voice.

OVERBY: Cindy Slusser is in the Laborers Union. George Jeffries is with the United Auto Workers. But, as they say, they're calling on behalf of Workers' Voice. It's a superPAC, the kind of political committee made possible by Citizens United.

Jeff Kranz is a letter carrier from Finley, Ohio. He's in charge here. They've got the phone bank, also packets for door-to-door canvassers.

JEFF KRANZ: The way we code it is WV. And then this is the, you know, the precinct and the ward and all of that. And the amount of doors that we knock.

OVERBY: The WV packets for Workers Voice canvassers include addresses of union members, Democrats and independent voters. The doors to knock on can number in the 60s or 70s. Kranz says two canvassers share a packet, one for each side of the street.

KRANZ: And that's pretty typical for a good three-hour canvass shift. It still allows you time to sit and have a conversation with the people.

OVERBY: The best-known things about Citizens United: first, it gave corporations the right to spend money directly promoting or attacking candidates; and second, it spawned the superPACs and politically active nonprofit groups that are so prominent in the presidential contest.

Austin Keyser is the Ohio state campaign director for the AFL-CIO. He's at the state headquarters in Columbus.

AUSTIN KEYSER: Well, Citizens United is in our opinion a horrible Supreme Court decision. I think that goes without saying.

OVERBY: But the way the Federal Election Commission interpreted Citizens United, it also gives that right to unions. So now, Keyser says the superPAC Workers' Voice can spend money freely, to take organized labor's political message to the general public

KEYSER: Mobilize, with our membership, with our activists, and go out and put boots on the ground and do the work on the doors, on the phones.

OVERBY: Unions have done this before, using membership dues but only to contact their own members. So far this cycle, Federal Election Commission records show that unions nationally have put more than $7 million into Workers' Voice. And in Ohio, Keyser says it makes a big difference.

KEYSER: It about doubles our universe in the state. We'll be talking to somewhere just under 2 million voters this year, where in normal years we'd be talking to about 1.2 million.

OVERBY: Union workers are hardly the only pro-Democratic troops in the ground war. The Obama campaign is highly organized, along with the Democratic Party, and environmental and women's groups, among others. In Ohio, Republicans are working to rebuild a get-out-the-vote operation that surprised Democrats and helped re-elect President George W. Bush in 2004.

Matthew Borges, executive director of the state GOP, says their volunteers are turning out in far greater numbers than in 2006 or 2008.

MATTHEW BORGES: The Knights of Columbus have been extremely helpful in getting volunteers out, especially in northern Ohio.

OVERBY: For the unions, this ground campaign is something like an encore. Last year they out-organized Republicans on a referendum vote. They overturned a new state law that would have cracked down on public employee unions.

Mainly big money in politics goes into television. The way Workers' Voice spends money on canvassing packets makes it an oddity among the superPACs.

Paul Beck is a professor emeritus in the Political Science Department of The Ohio State University. He says these big ground campaigns usually happen only for presidential elections.

PAUL BECK: Typically, in a presidential campaign, these are driven by national forces. And they are driven by national forces only to basically be active only in the battleground states.

OVERBY: For lesser elections the cost of ground operations has been considered too high. But with superPACs and the unregulated contributions that finance them, that equation may change.

Peter Overby, NPR News in Columbus, Ohio.

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