Documents that the Democratic Party and unions have sued to keep secret reveal a campaign strategy in which labor and party officials served side by side on committees that directed the Democrats' election activities in each state.
While labor's support of Democrats is well known, the documents show labor leaders had veto power over Democratic Party plans in 1996 by virtue of their large donations and seats on the steering committees in each state.
"When the DNC and its National partners including . . . the AFL-CIO and the NEA (National Education Association) agree on the contents of a plan, each national partner will give their funding commitment to the state," an internal DNC memo titled "Rules of Engagement" said.
Lawrence Noble, the nation's former top election regulator, told the Associated Press on Thursday he was surprised by the degree of control unions held over Democratic decisions. Noble headed the investigation into GOP charges of illegal coordination between unions and Democrats.
"The AFL had a certain amount of control over what political parties and candidates did. That is what is striking," Noble said.
In addition to its usual political action committee donations, the AFL-CIO spent $35-million from its general treasury in 1996 to help Democrats win.
At the request of the Democratic Party and unions, a federal judge has forbidden the Federal Election Commission from releasing documents gathered during its four-year inquiry.
AP obtained the documents from officials involved in various federal investigations of unions and from groups that got some documents when they were briefly released by the FEC.
The documents detail extensive discussions between labor and party leaders on how to contact, register and influence voters to support Democrats and show where unions in some instances drew their money to accomplish the mission.
In one case, a New York hospital workers union, Local 1199, spent $250,000 from its strike defense fund for a $2.7-million effort called the '96 Project aimed at holding congressional Republicans accountable for their support of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," the records show.
Frequently, officials from the Democratic Party or its congressional fundraising arms contacted union officials to seek approval for election activities.
For instance, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee official Rob Engel wrote AFL-CIO political official Steve Rogers in September 1996 to discuss phone banks and direct mail efforts aimed at identifying voters and getting them to the polls in 16 target congressional districts.
"We request the AFL-CIO review these budgets and programs. If you approve them, we ask that you encourage your affiliated unions to contribute to each congressional district coordinated campaign," Engel wrote.
DCCC operatives followed up a few days later with a second memo. "Attached is our updated and improved requests for your big bucks," it said.
Around the time, the AFL-CIO ran ads in several of the same congressional districts portraying Democrats as union-friendly, the FEC concluded.
John Hiatt, AFL-CIO general counsel, acknowledged the union had veto power over Democratic activities it helped finance.
"For aspects of campaigns we subsidize, I think we would want veto power," Hiatt said.
Noble said business groups allied with Republicans also have growing clout in elections.