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Labor power AFL-CIO to form super PAC to engage beyond unions

By Molly O'Toole

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Powerful labor group AFL-CIO is forming a super PAC to engage nonunion members ahead of the 2012 elections, the group said on Tuesday.

The move follows measures by states like Wisconsin and Ohio to curb bargaining rights of public workers in fights that are part of a broader national confrontation between Republicans and labor groups that have typically favored Democrats.

AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer said the 12.2 million-strong group was creating the political action committee to expand its communications, not to raise unlimited campaign funds for pro-labor candidates.

"We saw just in the last elections in 2010 that the flood of money that came in further tilted the playing field," Podhorzer said, adding the move was not a response to recent battles over collective bargaining.

"We're looking more at the next decade of building stronger alliances among all workers," he added. "Because of the Republican victories, in 2012 obviously a lot of our fights will be in states that might not otherwise have been."

In the past, individual labor unions have adopted their own political strategies and at times have given "enormous amounts of money" to candidates, but that was not the purpose of the super PAC, which Podhorzer said would be nonpartisan.

"Candidates will still be endorsed," he said. "Unlimited money in the elections is not good for democracy, but we do want to take the opportunity for workers to talk to each other, whether in unions or not."

The AFL-CIO's political strategy for 2012 was still in the discussion stage, he said. The super PAC will be formally launched shortly after meetings this month.

REPUBLICANS NOT CONCERNED

The Republican National Committee said it was not concerned.

"Labor has time and time again has tried to throw money at failed policy and has lost time and time again," RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said. "They've tried to throw everything in but the kitchen sink and not found success so I don't think the super PAC is going to change that."

Super PACs, advocacy organizations devoted to broad causes such as electing Republicans or Democrats, have emerged from a gray area in campaign finance created after a 2010 Supreme Court decision lifted limits on corporations' ability to contribute to campaigns.

Since that decision, super PACs have come under scrutiny for massive corporate fund-raising for like-minded candidates. Previously, the Federal Election Act had limited the AFL-CIO's election mobilization efforts to union members.

"This is something working people should have never been limited from," Podhorzer said. "When union members go out and walk a neighborhood and knock on doors, up until this point they would have to skip over all the doors of people who didn't belong."

He said the AFL-CIO super PAC would be very different from the high-profile conservative super PAC American Crossroads, which has raised millions for Republican candidates.

"It is not meant to try to create a Democratic-side Crossroads. We don't see this as a partisan alternative," he said.

But Jonathan Collegio, Communications Director for American Crossroads, said he thought the AFL-CIO would use the super PAC to influence elections.

"Big unions spent more than $400 million electing Barack Obama and the democrats in 2008," Collegio said in an e-mailed statement. "This super PAC is a new tool in their toolshed that allows them to dip into the union treasury to impact elections."

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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