Unions are shifting more of their political resources to state and local races this year as they try to head off passage of laws that could undermine bargaining rights, make it harder to organize or reduce their political muscle.
Labor leaders say their top goal remains re-electing President Barack Obama, but several unions are redirecting their focus from the presidential and congressional campaigns to state and local races in dozens of states where they feel threatened.
In New Hampshire, unions want to keep the governor's seat in Democratic hands to prevent a right-to-work measure. In Maine and Minnesota, labor leaders hope to overturn Republican majorities in state legislatures. And in Michigan, unions are trying to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.
The shift comes as organized labor is still reeling from battles in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states where governors have sought to limit union rights for public workers or otherwise restrict union power.
"This year we've invested in these races more than ever before," said Brian Weeks, political director of the country's largest public workers union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Weeks' union has pledged to spend $100 million this election cycle to help re-elect Obama and other union-friendly candidates—most of them are Democrats—in federal, state and local races. A larger chunk of that is flowing to state and local candidates than in the past, though Weeks said the union is only spending "marginally less" on presidential and congressional races than four years ago.
Unions have been on the defensive since 2010, when Republicans seeking to weaken union muscle took control in 26 state legislatures, up from 14 two years earlier. Unions failed to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, after he signed a law limiting collective bargaining rights for most public workers. They also saw Indiana become the 23rd state to pass a right-to-work law that limits unions' ability to collect fees from nonunion workers.
"The severity and the viciousness of the attacks in 2010 caught us a little off-guard," Weeks said. "Now we're planning for that to prevent it from happening again."
In 2008, the nation's largest firefighters union spent nearly 100 percent of its money on federal races. This year, for the first time, about 25 percent of the national union's $14 million political budget is going to state and local campaigns.
"We have really pivoted and turned a lot of our work and resources into those state races," said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters.
That includes Iowa, where Democrats hold a one-vote majority in the Senate. Unions hope to keep that advantage to prevent passage of a measure that would ban public employee unions from collecting dues through automatic paycheck deductions.
Unions can play a pivotal role in turning out voters in some states. The AFL-CIO says its volunteers will knock on 5.5 million doors, make 5.2 million phone calls and hand out 2 million leaflets at worksites in the final four days before the election. Voters in 25 states will receive about 12 million pieces of mail urging them to vote for union-endorsed candidates.
Larry Kruse, a Republican running for a state Senate seat in Iowa's 42nd District, said some of his supporters have shown him the fliers that unions are mailing out.
"Most of them are on the negative side, so a lot of people are upset with them," Kruse said. "They may be spending a lot of money, but I question how effective it is."
In Minnesota, unions hope to overturn Republican rule of both legislative chambers so Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton can push through income tax increases on the highest earners and more spending on schools. Republicans want to cut state spending, which could jeopardize public employees.
In New Hampshire, the GOP-led Legislature passed right-to-work legislation last year but failed to override a veto by Democratic Gov. John Lynch. Lynch is not seeking another term, so unions are pinning their hopes on electing Democrat Maggie Hassan over GOP rival Ovide Lamontagne, who has pledged to sign a right-to-work measure.
This week, AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union launched a $1.3 million television ad campaign in New Hampshire against Lamontagne.
The heavy union investment in New Hampshire's gubernatorial race doesn't sit well with Fred Kfoury, president and CEO of Central Paper Products Co., a 55-employee business in Manchester. Kfoury said a right-to-work law would help the state attract more new businesses.
"Unions have outlived their usefulness and have been an impediment to business growth and dynamics," Kfoury said.
Brandon Davis, SEIU's political director, downplayed the notion that his union is not spending as much money on the presidential and congressional races. He said the union is being more strategic about how it spends money, focusing on state legislative districts that overlap with key congressional districts and urging voters not to forget about state and local races.
"We simply cannot stop at the top," Davis said.
Unions are being forced to play defense even in the usually labor-friendly confines of California, where they are fighting a ballot proposition that would prohibit unions from using payroll deductions to collect funds for political purposes. That would starve unions of the tens of millions of dollars they use to finance campaigns and political organizing. Californians rejected similar measures in 2005 and 1998.
In Michigan, unions are going on offense with a ballot measure that would include collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. The measure would prevent future Wisconsin-style measures restricting bargaining rights, but opponents say it would hinder state and local lawmakers who want to control their budgets.
A union-backed group has spent about $6.5 million on TV ads supporting the measure, according to a nonprofit called the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Two opposition groups with business support have spent roughly the same amount.