It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The president of the biggest labor organization in America says today is quote, "a defining Labor Day for working people." Some labor official somewhere in America must say that every year, but this Labor Day also marks the final phase of the congressional election campaign, and that campaign is looking grim for labor's traditional allies in the Democratic Party. Unions want to stir up their members and raise money. But whatever they spend may be overwhelmed by the corporate money in the system.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, made that defining Labor Day remark last week. He laid out the stakes for union workers.

Mr. RICHARD TRUMKA (President, AFL-CIO): This election is about economic patriots, and it's also about corporate traitors.

OVERBY: That harsh language, corporate traitors, was aimed at companies that send jobs overseas. Labor says it's mobilizing in 26 states, more than 400 contests for seats in Congress and state offices. Just one example: this radio spot about raising the minimum wage. It's for the Missouri Senate race between Democrat Robin Carnahan and Republican Roy Blunt.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man: Congressman Blunt didn't think they deserved a pay raise. Just himself. Congressman Roy Blunt. After 14 years in Washington, he's really out of touch. Paid for by the American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees.

OVERBY: But business is revved up, too. Thomas Bell, board chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, tells members in a blog post to go up this week, that no business person can afford to sit this one out. The U.S. Chamber sent strategist Bill Miller out to Missouri.

Mr. BILL MILLER (Strategist): I'm here today to announce our formal endorsement of Roy Blunt.

OVERBY: Naturally, the endorsement came with TV ads.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Woman: While 71 percent of us voted no, Carnahan sided with lobbyists, big unions and Washington insiders to force Obamacare on us.

OVERBY: Now, labor and business each has special strengths. For labor, it's people and organization. For business, it's money. Every election cycle, business outspends labor, and those numbers could become even more lopsided.

Political scientist David Magleby of Brigham Young University, has tracked outside groups and campaigns for more than a decade.

Professor DAVID MAGLEBY (Political Scientist, Brigham Young University): The landscape of American campaign finance was changed fundamentally by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.

OVERBY: That's the ruling last January that lets corporations and unions spend unlimited amounts in campaigns. Just suppose, says Magleby, that a big corporation decides to play in a hot Senate race.

Prof. MAGLEBY: And drop 12 to $15 million. Well, that's a small fraction of their general treasury money or their profits. But it would dwarf what unions or others would likely spend in a race, even if it was a high-priority race.

OVERBY: It's not clear how much corporate and union money is going into politics this fall. Unknown millions go through channels that skirt the disclosure laws. But organized labor is expected to spend $100 million or more, a big number that's likely to be matched by just two pro-business groups - Club for Growth and the U.S. Chamber - before counting any other business groups or individual corporations.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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