Under siege in state legislatures around the country -- and fearing the consequences of a Republican in the White House -- union leaders say they have little choice as they try to beat back GOP efforts to curb collective bargaining rights or limit their ability to collect dues.
"People are digging deeper," said Larry Scanlon, political director of the country's largest public workers union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "If Republicans take over the presidency, Congress and enough state legislatures, unions will be out of business, pure and simple."
Scanlon's union was the biggest overall spender in the 2010 midterm elections, doling out about $93 million to help state and federal candidates, mostly Democrats.
This year, AFSCME is expected to spend $100 million or more on political action, including television advertising, phone banks and member canvassing. The effort is to help the president, Democrats running for the House and Senate, gubernatorial candidates and key state lawmakers.
With increased spending planned by other labor groups, including the powerful Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, unions are likely to top the $400 million they spent to help elect Obama four years ago.
Not all union expenditures on political action are publicly disclosed, so some numbers are based on self-reporting. But unions have long been known as one of the most reliable supporters of Democratic candidates, and their efforts have increased with every election as the threats to organized labor grow.
Unions already spent more than $40 million last year to successfully repeal an Ohio law that restricted collective bargaining rights and to recall lawmakers who backed a similar measure in Wisconsin. They are spending millions more in a bid to recall Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who led the charge to curb public employee union rights as a way to balance the state's budget.
But unions are being spread thin as they deal with a new wave of measures they say are designed to weaken their clout. Indiana passed a right-to-work measure earlier this month, and Republicans in New Hampshire are pushing a similar bill.
Tim Phillips, president of the conservative anti-tax and anti-regulation group Americans for Prosperity, denied any grand strategy to weaken unions. His group, founded with the support of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, spends millions on anti-Obama and anti-union ads across the country.