How Public Sector Unions Are Winning the Cyberwar

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
January 22, 2013

How Public Sector Unions Are Winning the Cyberwar

Earlier this month leaders of the Obama reelection campaign announced the formation of a permanent advocacy organization called Organizing for Action that will enlist his supporters to fight for his policy agenda. The creation of this organization should come as no surprise, since the two key prerequisites for its existence are already in place. (1) A permanent source of consistent funding in the form of forced union dues revenue, and (2) a permanent professional army of supporters in the form of employees and consultants employed by these unions, alongside millions of unionized government employees.

This has been summarized in earlier UnionWatch posts and CPPC studies. Two that are directly relevant are the CPPC study from March 23, 2012, entitled Public Sector Unions Spend $4.0 Billion per Year in U.S. (a very conservative estimate), and the UnionWatch post from November 27, 2012 entitled “The Preexisting Political Advantage of Government Workers.” This documents the fact that most taxes in the United States are collected and spent at the state and local level, and mostly managed by elected officials holding low-visibility positions where the only candidates interested in running are the employees whose agencies are overseen by these obscure elected offices. The people most motivated to hold elected office, especially at the local level, and the people most likely to cast a ballot for a candidate, especially at the local level, are government workers. Add to that a steady torrent of billions in union dues, and you have a political machine that is extremely difficult to fight.

What Organizing for Action is trying at the national level may become a bigger and more permanent fixture on America’s political landscape than anything that’s come before, but it is a logical extension of what’s already here. And the levels of technical innovation they are intending to deploy to track and reach voters is also a logical extension of what’s already been done. But observers should understand that the steady improvements in high-tech campaign management that really didn’t begin until 2008 have continued to mature. If you have enough money, enough people, and enough time – and the public sector unions have plenty of all those things – you can now comprehensively track every voter in America. And that is exactly what Organizing for Action is doing.

Here are some excerpts from a March 16, 2012 article in Politico by Dave Levinthal that describe the new game: “Obama’s 2012 campaign is watching you

“The campaign’s headquarters built a centralized digital database on potential voters. Obama for America has already invested millions of dollars in sophisticated Internet messaging, marketing and fundraising efforts that rely on personal data sometimes offered up voluntarily — like posts on a Facebook page— but sometimes not. And according to a campaign official and former Obama staffer, the campaign’s Chicago-based headquarters has built a centralized digital database of information about millions of potential Obama voters.

It all means Obama is finding it easier than ever to merge offline data, such as voter files and information purchased from data brokers, with online information to target people with messages that may appeal to their personal tastes. Gone are the days when campaigns cataloged voters and their preferences with index cards and filing cabinets. It’s even a quantum leap forward from 2008, when campaigns struggled to link individual voters across databases.

‘All of the data used to be in different silos. You never had a central place,’ said Dan Siroker, a former director of analytics for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and deputy new media director for his presidential transition team who now runs online marketing optimization firm Optimizely. ‘That’s different this election.'”

This is the legacy that Organizing for Action is building upon. The problem isn’t so much that this new organization is using state-of-the-art information technology to create the most powerful political machine in American history. The problem is this organization is funded through forced union dues, and finds overwhelming grassroots support from unionized government workers who have a personal and financial stake in a big government political agenda. Without these advantages, it is unlikely any competing political organization can create anything remotely comparable.

In what could be a harbinger of what’s to come, the cyber-war between union backed enterprises and union reformers ran a predictable course during the battle over California’s Proposition 32 initiative, which would have merely required unions to ask their members before deducting political contributions from their paychecks. Not only were the Prop. 32 supporters outspent, but they were grossly outspent in the early going, when a campaign must make their long-lead investments in information technology including online coalition building. For a visceral example of just how outgunned the Prop. 32 campaign was on the cyber front, consider the Facebook page operated by the Yes on 32 campaign, which the campaign donated to after the election.

If you have a Facebook account, log in and type in the search screen “Yes on 32.” Then click on “show additional results” at the bottom of the page. You will get 497 pages showing up under YES on 32 that have NO on 32 messages. You will find one page that represented the Yes on 32 campaign. You will see that the 496 NO on 32 Facebook pages acquired 207,781 “likes,” whereas the lone YES on 32 Facebook page acquired 26,247 “likes,” one-tenth as many. And you will see that nearly all of these No on 32 Facebook pages were operated by groups of unionized government employees.

This is only one example of a campaign that was highly sophisticated, abundantly staffed, and provided virtually limitless funds. Anyone looking to reform public sector unions in America today needs to realize these unions now have three advantages: They have a huge and steady flow of money and a permanent standing army of foot soldiers, thanks to forced union dues and unionized government workers who tend to favor bigger government. But they also can now leverage those two advantages to build, deploy, and permanently operate information technology assets that will probably remain well beyond the capacity of any opposition that must rely on volunteers.

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