The AFL-CIO hopes to boost its clout by launching a new political action committee that could raise unlimited amounts of money, part of the federation's goal of building a year-round political organizing structure.
Forming a so-called "super labor PAC" would allow the labor federation to raise money from sympathetic donors both inside and outside union membership and mobilize support beyond its traditional base, instead of ramping up political activities each election cycle.
The move would also help steer more of labor's money to state legislative battles, where unions have been battling efforts to curb union rights in states like Wisconsin and Ohio.
"The essential idea is that changes in the law for the first time really allow the labor movement to speak directly to workers, whether they have collective bargaining agreements or not," AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer said in an interview. "Before, most political resources went to our own membership."
Labor leaders discussed the plan at the AFL-CIO executive council meetings earlier this month, but officials said the idea remains subject to final approval over the next few weeks.
Both GOP- and Democratic-leaning super PACs have flourished since a landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited cash in support of, or against, candidates for elected office. The super PACs must operate independently of candidates.
More than 100 super PACS have sprouted since the high court's decision and are expected to play a major role in the 2012 elections.
Unions remain a pillar of the Democratic Party, spending about $400 million to help elect President Barack Obama in 2008 and directing another $200 million to help Democrats during the 2010 mid-term elections. That includes both campaign contributions and organized labor's extensive get-out-the-vote efforts that help steer Democratic-leaning voters from union households to the polls.
But AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has warned that the federation may spend less money on congressional elections and more on state races, where they face aggressive GOP efforts to limit collective bargaining rights and cut back benefits for unionized public employees.
Many union leaders are frustrated that their money has not bought more meaningful support for the union agenda in Congress. Some activists want to reallocate more resources to bolster grass roots support in the states.
Labor leaders have also watched as Republican-leaning groups have successfully taken advantage of the new election rules and don't want to fall behind.
"As far as our ability to hold folks accountable for next year's state legislative battles, we hope this will make a difference and that's why we're pursuing this," Podhorzer said of plans to form the super PAC.
Unions have spent millions this year on efforts to recall Wisconsin GOP lawmakers who supported legislation that weakened collective bargaining rights for most of the state's public employees. The AFL-CIO alone contributed more than $5 million to the group We Are Wisconsin, a coalition of national unions and others backing the recalls. Still, conservative groups opposing the recalls spent even more in the state.
"They could attract new kinds of money, and to the degree they could be successful with that, it opens up a whole new avenue for contributing and opportunities for spending," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics.