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Innovative Model Is Helping Save the Future of Unions and May Turn the Election

If groups like Working America can build an awareness of economic issues among swing voters, it could be a game-changer.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Minnesota AFL-CIO

 

I am in a nice suburban neighborhood, walking down a cul-de-sac with a notebook in my hand, watching as a canvasser with an iPad and a stack of leaflets knocks on doors and chats pleasantly with families about jobs, corporate accountability, education and retirement.

I could be anywhere in America; these people could be voters in any community. But this is Ohio, and these voters are the most canvassed, scrutinized, obsessed over in the nation, as their "swing" state could well decide a presidency. And the canvasser I'm following is a field director for Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. They work to organize non-union households around the issues that matter to all working people.

Theresa Bruskin, the field director taking me around, tells each person who answers a door she knocks on that, “Our strategy is strength in numbers.” She's asking them to sign up as a member with Working America, which simply means giving her a phone number and email address to match the street address she already has. She also asks for a donation, either a monthly contribution or a few dollars on the spot, to keep Working America going. We go to every home but the union homes -- it doesn't matter whether there are registered voters, Democrats, Republicans, whomever. Everyone gets a knock.

Jack, a stocky grey-haired man sitting outside his house smoking a pipe, tells us he's a former cop, and that he'd been canvassed earlier by someone selling something. “Didn't like him. Ran him off,” he says. But he lets Bruskin talk to him about the issues, takes the iPad, nods at “campaign donations” but says the issue that most concerns him is a secure retirement. He gives Bruskin his contact info but no money, although he does ask for an envelope and says he'll send it later.

The first donation comes from a couple who say corporate accountability is their top concern. An occupational therapist and a nurse, they recognize Working America's name right away. “You guys do good work,” they say.

“It's nice somebody takes time for other people,” one woman says, handing over a few dollars and putting Bruskin over her fundraising goal for the evening—with hours left to go on her canvass.

One woman brings her small dog outside to chat with us, waiting as her husband rides up on his motorcycle. He's a warehouse worker and she works at Huntington Bank; jobs typical of the people we met. We meet retirees and young professionals, a young man just out of college and middle-aged folks walking their dogs. After one and a half hours of walking around the neighborhood, I haven't seen a single lawn sign for a candidate, state or presidential, and just a couple of Obama bumper stickers. Most people are polite, willing to chat about the issues. Some are hesitant to give personal information and seem unsure as to what they're signing up for, others cheerfully hand over money. A few tell us quickly that they're not interested and we walk away.

Building a Community

Working America was founded in 2003 with the idea of reaching out beyond the ranks of organized labor. The idea, says Karen Nussbaum, the organization's co-founder and executive director, was one that people had been discussing for years but in 2003 they decided to give it one more try.

“Right from the start we've always had two out of three people we talked to sign up as a member,” Nussbaum says. “The basic premise, that there are people out there hungry for access to information and a way to engage has remained true and vibrant.”