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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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What began as a pilot program in Cleveland, Ohio spread in the first year to Pennsylvania, Florida and Missouri, and recruited nearly a million members. Unlike labor unions, people become “members” of Working America simply by signing up so they can be part of a list, so that organizers can reach out to them again later, during an election or for an issue campaign. “Some will take a quick action and that's all they do, others will represent our organization in public,” says Dan Heck, Working America's regional director in Ohio. “We get some who are just receptive and we keep them informed. We welcome everyone who wants to be engaged at the level they want to be engaged at.”

From those first few canvassing operations, the organization spread and has organized in around 25 states at one point or another. This year, they're in Ohio, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

“We set out to operate on a mass scale and I think that's also been a really important feature of what we do. It only matters if you can get big enough,” Nussbaum says.

The people who sign up may have union backgrounds, Heck says, and be excited to be connected to the labor movement in some way. Others, he notes, don't have any experience with organized labor and don't really understand what it does.

Nussbaum shares a story from the Minnesota State Fair, where Working America had a booth titled “Losing your Marbles at Work.” People who stopped by were given three red marbles and told to put them in a container marked with one of seven workplace problems—bad pay, long hours, unpleasant boss, and more. “Hundreds of people came up and got engaged and wanted to talk about their jobs. Some of them wanted to meet again.”

Engaging people who sign up at their door with a canvasser around their issues at work is a challenge, but, Nussbaum says, “We know what kind of work all of our members do—now how do we think about having that base of people challenge what's going on for them at work?”

Shaping the Conversation

From the membership canvass I attended in August, Working America has now shifted to its pre-election canvassing, which targets union households, Working America members and just about everyone on their issues and on specific candidates. “It's a completely different type of conversation,” Heck explains.

In Ohio, they're working on the presidential race and Sherrod Brown's Senate race in particular, working to motivate voters who were active in the fight against Senate Bill 5 (Ohio's attack on collective bargaining, overturned by a ballot referendum in 2011). Working America was active in that fight, with four Ohio offices (there are now three) canvassing along every step of the way, gathering petition signatures and turning out voters. “We won by a margin of 22 points among the general population, among our members it was 44 points,” Heck says.

The organization actually ran a study during its SB5 operation and found that among people that spoke to a Working America canvasser, they gained almost 15 votes against the bill for every 100 conversations.

They've also worked on other issues less obviously connected to the labor movement. Heck notes that they helped stop a plan in Ohio to shorten the school year by up to five weeks—a plan pushed by the amusement park lobby.

“I think it's always been the case that unions fight for all working people, fight for legislation on things that help everybody,” Heck says. But people don't always think that's the case, especially when the mainstream media (as evinced by this week's coverage of the Chicago teachers strike) tends to paint unions as selfish and self-interested. Heck notes that it's good for people to see Working America and other labor-allied groups fighting for issues like this one and joining the battle over the minimum wage, even when union members almost always make more than the minimum.