By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Donations to federal political candidates by labor unions are down sharply this year, an analysis found on Thursday, in an ominous sign for the Democratic Party heading into next year's elections.
Reported contributions by unions' political committees -- traditionally bastions of support for Democrats -- were down 40 percent for the first quarter of 2011 compared with two years earlier, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance.
Membership in labor unions has been slowly dropping for years, but this year's decline in donations is more likely due to disenchantment with politicians including President Barack Obama and the stunted U.S. economic recovery.
For the first quarter of this year, union political action committees gave nearly $4.8 million to federal candidates, compared with $8.4 million in the same period in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"Labor unions have been the foot soldiers of the Democratic Party," Gary Chaison, a professor of labor studies at Clark University in Massachusetts, said. "But the labor movement is seriously having to rethink its political role this year."
A lack of focus by their Democratic allies on creating new jobs and failure to deliver legislation strengthening unions has members disillusioned, several experts said.
Just under 12 percent of Americans, or 14.7 million people, belonged to unions in 2010, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier. More than 20 percent of Americans were union members in 1983.
"There is a longer-term trend in place, but it definitely does not explain the sizable drop-off, which may be better explained by the economic downturn and quite possibly the disconnect with the Democratic Party's lack of focus on jobs," said Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason.
Obama "has done a lot for bankers from their perspective," he said, referring to the bailout of big banks amid the 2007-2009 financial meltdown.
NOT JUST CASH
Obama is not expected to be wanting for cash in his re-election bid, and he is seen meeting or surpassing a $60 million goal for the second quarter alone. That means the impact will likely be felt most in congressional races.
Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said his members are angry that attacks on unions on the state level has been met with silence by federal officials.
"This is about a pattern of disappointment, and it really was brought to a head by what we feel is overall silence from our friends in Congress on these outrageous assaults on our members around this country," he said.
Unions provide more than just money. They are experts at organization, which can be key in close elections.
"It is not that unions have that many members, but they can get those members to show up at political rallies and drive people to the polls," Chaison said.
Union contributions topped $64 million during 2010, with 93 percent going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Interest groups that tend to back Republicans also spend heavily.
During the 2010 elections, among the biggest outside spending groups were the Chamber of Commerce, which spent $33 million and the American Action Network, which spent $26 million, according to report by New York City's public advocate office. Both groups nearly always back Republicans.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)