ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Labor unions, saying they can't hope to compete with the new breed of conservative fundraising groups, plan to spend less money this year on specific candidates and political party organizations and more on door-to-door canvassing, phone banks and registration drives to help President Barack Obama and other Democrats.
The shift, outlined at the AFL-CIO's annual executive council meeting near Disney World, marks a change from two years ago, when roughly two-thirds of organized labor's campaign spending went to political parties and candidates.
"We're not going to ever raise anything like the kind of money that our opponents have," said AFL-CIO political director Mike Podhorzer. "But the power of people talking to each other, friends talking to friends, friends talking to neighbors is always going to trump these cheap negative ads."
Unions hope to take advantage of a landmark 2010 Supreme Court case allowing union campaign workers to stop at the home of any voter — not just those of union members. That's the same ruling that allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited cash in support of, or against, candidates for elected office.
Podhorzer said unions are adapting to a changed political landscape now that GOP-leaning super PACs are spending millions of dollars on television ads, often slamming Democrats and promoting Republican candidates.
The labor federation, which represents 57 unions and about 12 million workers, wants to enlist up to 400,000 of its members for a massive ground operation that would persuade voters to support candidates at the federal, state and local levels.
The AFL-CIO is focusing on building its strongest political programs in six battleground states: Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It is also investing heavily in about 20 other states. And the federation is also trying to register at least 20 percent of an estimated 2.3 million active and retired union members who are not currently registered to vote.
Union leaders have said they plan to spend more this election cycle than the $400 million they say they spent helping elect Obama and other Democrats in 2008. But last year, contributions from union PACs to Democratic candidates and committees dropped 20 percent compared with the same period before the 2008 election, according the Center for Responsive Politics.
Podhorzer wouldn't say exactly how much the AFL-CIO itself will spend this cycle. The federation spent more than $53 million during the 2010 campaign cycle.
About 59 percent of union households voted for Obama in 2008.
The shift in spending comes as AFL-CIO leaders officially endorsed Obama for a second term Tuesday. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised Obama for passing the $800 billion stimulus package, pushing a health care overhaul and insisting on Wall Street reforms.
Trumka said unions are more enthusiastic about Obama than they were a year ago, when the president was mired in a debate with House Republicans over deficit reduction and didn't seem focused on job creation.
"I think he's made a complete pivot," Trumka said. "Since Labor Day he's been talking about jobs, jobs, jobs."
While unions have had disagreements with Obama, "we've never doubted that he's a friend to working people," Trumka said.
Republicans, in turn, have accused Obama of doing the bidding of organized labor in exchange for its financial support.
"Big labor unions spent hundreds of millions of dollars to elect President Obama, and he has been repaying them ever since," said Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. "Union bosses have repeatedly attacked Mitt Romney in this campaign because they know he will end the sweetheart deals they have enjoyed under President Obama."
Obama addressed the executive council Tuesday via conference call and thanked them for their support. His campaign manager, Jim Messina, spoke to union leaders in person.
Podhorzer said union leaders are concerned about polling data that shows Obama less popular among blue-collar voters now than he was in 2008. An AFL-CIO analysis of dozens of polls shows 50 percent of white voters without a college degree have an unfavorable opinion of Obama, compared with just 42 percent in 2008.
If Obama can't get back to where he was among those voters in 2008, "this is going to be a very difficult election for him to win," Podhorzer said.
The change in spending follows Trumka's announcement last summer that the federation would be less tied to the Democratic Party and spend more resources shoring up state and local operations. Unions want to be better positioned to counter efforts in states like Wisconsin and Ohio to pass legislation limiting union rights or weakening labor's clout.