The uncertainty of the new campaign finance law, along with infighting and divergent interests among unions, have raised concerns about Democrats' prospects in next year's elections.
In the 2002 campaign cycle, labor unions spent $96.5 million, mostly to elect Democrats. Almost $36 million of that came in the form of unrestricted donations known as soft money. The new ban against such unlimited contributions remains in place until the Supreme Court decides whether the campaign finance law is constitutional.
As a result, many of the big money unions are sitting on their wealth and considering options. For now, the likelihood of a coordinated, well-financed, labor-led effort is in question.
Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said his union will use some of its funds to help with registration and turning out its 260,000 members on behalf of candidates it supports.
In 2002, his union spent $2.3 million in political money as labor's 15th biggest donor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
One soft money recipient is a new nonprofit group headed by former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal. He is credited with building union voter turnout in the past few elections.
The Partnership for America's Families wants to pool soft money from labor and other allies — as much as $30 million — to mobilize Democratic voters in 2004.
That effort, however, has had problems, including the resignations last month of the entire original board in a feud over the partnership's direction and inclusion of minority groups.
A newly appointed board is led by Andrew Stern, president of the largest union in the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union. The board also includes officials from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees and the United Farm Workers.
"I'm very hopeful that in this new partnership, which we hope to be much more inclusive, that other groups will join us at the table," Stern said.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union probably will participate, said spokesman Greg Denier. His union ranks eighth in labor political contributions with $3.6 million.
Despite "some bumps along the road," labor ultimately will come together for the election, he said.
But attempts to resolve the dispute with the original board chairman, Gerald McEntee, have proved unsuccessful, and the partnership for now will not include labor's biggest political money player, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
AFSCME gave $9.5 million to Democrats in 2002, more than any other union. It is the party's No. 1 contributor, with $34 million since 1989. As for soft money alone, AFSCME was the third-largest source for Democrats in 2002 with $6.6 million.
Other large unions from the start had expressed concern about the partnership and its oversight. Among those not participating are the Teamsters, the International Association of Machinists, the American Federation of Teachers and the Fire Fighters.
Instead, several unions are looking at forming their own nonprofit groups. The Teamsters union, for example, is planning an organization that would back moderate causes and candidates.
A proliferation of competing political nonprofits concerns some labor officials.
"I started telling people the day after election day — I am not anxious to start shoveling money down the rat hole of a (political nonprofit) based on a Powerpoint" presentation, said Donald Kaniewski, legislative and political director of the Laborers International Union of North America.
"Many of these operations are going to have to have a solid plan and goals," he said. "They're going to have to have a real program and a standard of accountability that we can all measure."
The Laborers union, No. 5 in labor political contributions, hasn't decided whether to participate in Rosenthal's partnership. A lot of the money will be spent on internal mobilization, Kaniewski said.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which ranks seventh, also plans to keep much of its soft money in house. It is not joining the partnership.
"We think the better way to spend our money is on internal membership education and mobilization," said spokesman Jim Spellane.
Also of concern is working to rebuild political funds in IBEW's political action committee in a weak economy, he said. IBEW members in construction, manufacturing and utilities all are hurting.
"This is not going to be an easy time," Spellane said. "Circumstances are certainly favoring the pro-business forces at this stage of the game."