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Big Labor, sick of empty campaign promises, tries a new strategy this election.

When Barack Obama collected the endorsement on Wednesday of Nevada’s largest union, Culinary Workers Union Local 226, many observers proclaimed that he may have picked up the key to victory in the state’s date January 19 caucuses. But whether or not their backing helps Obama win the presidency, the Culinary Workers will already have secured something better than mere campaign promises: In order to win their endorsement, the leading presidential candidates had to join the union’s fight in their contentious battle with the MGM Grand and other Las Vegas casinos over health care benefits and job security guarantees. Obama pledged to “have his sun tan lotion and hat ready” to walk a picket line if the workers struck, met with the union’s negotiating team, and celebrated with them in October when they signed contracts with six casinos. In addition, the Culinary Workers were able to secure pledges from Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards to spend time on the picket line if the union went on strike in Nevada.

Nevada’s Culinary Workers aren’t alone among unions in wanting more from campaign season than empty promises. The precipitous decline of union membership in the United States--from almost 12 million unionized private-sector workers in the 80s to less than 8 million in 2006--means that the labor movement can no longer afford to plunge endless resources into political campaigns without some guaranteed return. In a dramatic shift from its traditional practices, Big Labor has a new strategy this campaign season that focuses less on propelling their favorite candidates to victory and more on using election-time voter mobilization to build membership and draw attention to unions’ own key contract fights. This year will be a critical test of whether those new strategies can help win elections and provide a much-needed blood transfusion to America’s unions.

Labor endorsements have long been prized by politicians because union members frequently vote as a bloc--three-quarters of the approximately 12 million union voters who turned out in the 2006 Congressional elections pulled the lever for Democrats--and their members often have prior political experience, making them excellent volunteers. Unions also have significant amounts of money to give to candidates and to spend on independent efforts to sway voters. The AFL-CIO, America’s largest union federation representing 10 million workers, spent $40 million on the 2006 elections and has pledged that it and its 55 member unions will spend $200 million on the 2008 cycle, more than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton combined raised through the third quarter of last year.

That support comes with a price: Once in office, union-backed candidates are expected to pursue a broad economic agenda that includes increasing the minimum wage, making it easier to form unions, inserting labor protections in trade deals, and reforming working conditions.

But recent experience has made unions wary of staking their political credibility on endorsements. In 2004, despite blowing away the rest of the Democratic field with his number of union endorsements, then-Representative Dick Gephardt sputtered to a fourth-place finish in Iowa, and then dropped out. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) backed Vermont governor Howard Dean in November 2003, thinking it had found a match for its focus on aggressive organizing and growth--until Dean’s candidacy was undone in the blink of a news cycle.

Even when union-backed candidates make it into office, there’s no guarantee that they will deliver for the unions who supported them. Take Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who won resoundingly in 2006 thanks in part to hundreds of thousands of dollars from union PACs and a stamp of approval from the AFL-CIO, which gave him a 97 percent positive vote rating. He even wears a lapel pin of a miner’s canary, representing the dangers of the workplace before the advent of labor laws and union advocacy. But all his passion couldn’t change the Republican decision last summer to block the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions and that was a key labor movement priority.

In the wake of these expensive disappointments, seven unions, including SEIU, split from the AFL-CIO, taking six million members with them to a new labor federation, Change to Win. The break-up was prompted in part by a dispute over priorities: Unions who left the AFL-CIO wanted to spend money on efforts to grow union membership rather than political campaigns that they believed offered little return.

Unions’ membership crisis has forced them to reorient their political efforts toward bolstering their numbers--resulting in a drastic change in how they engage with political campaigns. Last year, the AFL-CIO used Kentucky to road-test a new national field strategy premised on capitalizing on election-time excitement to bring attention to their own causes. During the state’s 2007 gubernatorial election, the group mobilized a record number of volunteers. But the workers were not just stumping against anti-union GOP Governor Ernie Fletcher--they were also raising awareness of a crucial nursing strike at the Appalachian Regional Healthcare network of hospitals occurring at the same time as the campaign. The week before the election, they organized a statewide bus tour to turn out union voters and simultaneously draw attention to the nurse’s strike. The group also harnessed national interest in the gubernatorial election to elicit donations and staff support for the nurses’ strike from AFL-CIO member unions in other states.

The federation achieved both of its goals: Seventy-seven percent of union voters cast their ballots for the Democrat, union supporter Steve Beshear, and the nurses won a new contract. Even if their investment in Beshear fails to pay off, the election still offered tangible benefits to the federation.

The unions in Change to Win, such as SEIU, are also adopting growth-oriented campaign strategies. SEIU, for example, which represents 1.9 million health and child care workers, janitors and security guards nationwide, is part of a coalition that in 2007 helped more than a million eligible immigrants apply for citizenship--with the goal that they will also become 2008 voters. Adding a million Latino voters to the electorate could help swing key races towards Democrats in districts where Republicans have staked out hard lines on immigration. But perhaps more important for SEIU is that those new citizens are also potential new members.

Even in campaigns where unions do make campaign contributions and endorsements or provide volunteers, the labor movement is expecting its candidates to get intimately involved in union fights. SEIU set up a program called Walk a Day in My Shoes to have candidates spend a day on the job with union members--harnessing the campaign press to further their own initiatives--yielding pictures of Obama serving a meal to a home-bound patient in California and Hillary Clinton making the rounds with a Nevada nurse.

Of course, even if union-backed candidates do win their races, and Democrats take over all of Washington, the 2008 elections won’t provide a panacea for anemic union rosters. But if unions can find a way to get two for the price of one, and use their election-year efforts to fight for job security at the Tropicana in Las Vegas and get nurses back to work in Kentucky while garnering a new level of commitment and publicity from labor-friendly candidates, the movement might regain some of its potency--on Capitol Hill, and in union locals across the country.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a staff correspondent at Government Executive.

By Alyssa Rosenberg