The Sunlight Foundation did a fascinating report on “return on investment” for outside expenditure groups in this election cycle, and I hope this scares off Republican donors from successfully swamping Democrats with SuperPAC money in the House elections in 2014. But one number sticks out. Worker’s Voice, the SuperPAC created by the AFL-CIO, had an astonishingly good night, with a 76.14% return on investment on its roughly $13 million in spending. This rivaled the League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood and the PACs supporting Democrats in the Senate as among the best of the cycle.

How did labor do such a good job? First of all, they used a strategy completely new to them to attract non-union support:

Organized labor’s larger contribution this election may have been its outreach to non-union voters, something that wasn’t possible until the legal changes brought about by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

In addition to flooding elections with corporate money through outside groups like super PAC’s, the ruling allowed unions and their volunteers to knock on the doors of non-members for the first time, vastly expanding organized labor’s canvassing and get-out-the-vote operations.

Mike Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO’s political director, said unions’ outreach to those voters likely helped strengthen Obama’s largely weak numbers with white working-class men. Whereas the president polled in the 30’s among that demographic nationally, his numbers in states where the AFL-CIO had aggressive campaigns tended to be in the 40’s, Podhorzer said, adding that he believed there was a connection.

“For the first time, those blue collar workers who didn’t have a union were hearing about Romney’s plan to cut Social Security, to cut Medicare, to continue tax cuts for the rich,” Podhorzer said. “So it wasn’t so much that we were out there talking. What was special was that they were hearing for the fist time what union members were hearing for decades. And so they responded just like union members.”

In addition, Worker’s Voice actually allowed member volunteers to determine where the SuperPAC money would be spent, and they targeted it well, particularly in Ohio. The AFL-CIO claims that they made 800,000 voter contacts in the state in just the last week.

What’s interesting here is that labor made this effort in service to a party that did not move in major ways on their priorities in the previous four years. President Obama’s labor record includes recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and a decent job of trade enforcement, but also three more corporate-written trade deals, not even a wave at trying to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a health care law that goes after union-negotiated “Cadillac” health plans, not much help on the labor battles in the states, unnecessary antipathy to teacher’s unions and even siting the Democratic convention in a right-to-work state.

But labor determined that Mitt Romney, who supported SB5 in Ohio (probably something that really hurt him at the polls and activated labor in ways that made them an organizing force), would be worse on their issues. And the even more interesting by-product of this is that labor has immediately turned around and announced a campaign to fight the prevailing trend in Washington toward a grand bargain that would cut social insurance programs.

“Look, we’ve laid some markers down,” (AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka) says. “No tax cuts for the rich, not an extension of those tax cuts, not one minute. Two, no cuts in benefits for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And we’ll fight for those things. We’ll fight no matter who proposes them. If a Democrat proposes them, we’ll go after them as well.”

But can labor credibly threaten the Democrats, given that they have nowhere else to go? “Of course we have an option,” Trumka says. “It’s real simple. There’s things called primaries.” He pauses to let this threat sink in.

We’ve heard a lot of this before, but labor is actually backing this up with action. They never dismantled their field campaign from the election. They plan 100 events across the country over the next few weeks, based on ending the high-end Bush tax cuts and protecting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The same volunteers who leafleted for candidates at work sites before Election Day leafleted against the grand bargain at the same work sites on Wednesday, focused on making calls to Congress. Phone banks are pushing constituents to call Congress. Online ads, including on this site, are up and running. This is part of the permanent infrastructure, ironically ushered in by Citizens United, that organized labor plans to keep up.

It seems to me the priority order is a bit off here. You would typically get the promise and block the policy, and THEN work for the candidate. Now you have the candidates elected and no longer in short-term debt to labor. But labor definitely showed itself to be more forceful organizers than anyone predicted. I just fear their work went in service of an Administration disinterested in their priorities.

David Dayen

David Dayen