Election 2004

Winning Over Ohio's Swing Union Voters

In the battleground state of Ohio, labor is keeping workers focused on kitchen-table issues, such as the loss of jobs, the export of jobs overseas, and the growing healthcare crisis.
For Dan Radford, head of the Cincinnati Central Labor Council, the presidential campaign started last fall, long before Democrats had a nominee. And it will continue unabated throughout the year with more resources, more determination, more unity and a greater variety of tactics than ever before.

Reflecting the national labor movement's strategy and resolve, Radford's work in his crucial battleground state is based in a profound fear of Bush's re-election -- a fear that already is producing glimmers of hope.

"Working families are frightened of this administration for several reasons," said Radford. "You take the issue of overtime [which could be eliminated for 8 million workers under new Bush administration rules]. They see their safety net being eroded. And they're more attuned to foreign policy. They're frightened about what's happening in Iraq."

Although Bush will try to win conservative areas of Ohio, like Cincinnati, with social wedge issues, labor there is keeping workers focused on kitchen-table issues, such as the loss of jobs, the shift of manufacturing and white-collar jobs overseas, and the growing healthcare crisis. But Radford's local labor movement also is strongly backing an initiative to overturn Cincinnati's unique ban on laws protecting gay rights.

Besides starting earlier, labor will have more than three times as many outside organizers working in Cincinnati, and members are being mobilized to campaign in their workplaces and in their neighborhoods. A pilot project of the AFL-CIO's Working America -- recruiting nonunion households who share labor's general policy goals -- already has signed up 35,000 local members. Other new voter education and registration efforts, such as America Coming Together, have labor support and complement union political activity. The work already has paid off, with a victory in a suburban mayoral race. "I'm more hopeful now than six months ago," he said. "I talked it then. I feel it now."

The determination and muted optimism were evident when the AFL-CIO Executive Council gathered in Florida in March. For working people, there is a crisis in jobs, healthcare, education, retirement security and future economic prospects, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said.

"During this crisis, Bush has been AWOL," Sweeney charged. "Bush has been the worst president for working people in recent memory. He has favored giant corporations over working families at every turn."

But that anger, combined with labor's early, sophisticated and targeted political program, Sweeney said, can help unions play a critical role in John Kerry's election bid.

Refining the Focus

In the 2000 elections, labor households accounted for 26 percent of voters (36 percent in Ohio, which Gore narrowly lost after pulling his campaign out of Ohio in the last few weeks). That clout was the result of AFL-CIO efforts since Sweeney took office to boost registration, educate members on issues and get voters to the polls.

This year labor is refining its program with a new focus on swing union voters -- those who may shift parties or are vulnerable to Republican social issue pitches (on guns or gays, for example). Such members will be among many union members who regularly receive communication "sandwiches" -- phone calls from union volunteers, followed by mailings, followed by calls discussing the mailing. The union pitch on economic issues makes a difference. Firefighters President Harold Schaitberger, the major early labor backer of Kerry, said that even though 44 percent of his members identify as Republican, roughly 62 percent to 64 percent have backed union-supported Democrats in recent elections. Already this year, he said, union political education had boosted Kerry support among members by nearly 15 percentage points.

This sophistication and the campaign's early start will be backed up by a more sustained effort. Union leaders at the executive council approved a special assessment that should bring in an additional $6.5 million for political work this year, boosting AFL-CIO spending to at least $44 million, an increase of several million from 2000. In addition, individual unions will be spending even larger amounts both mobilizing their members and supporting candidates. The Service Employees Union (SEIU), for example, plans special assessments that will raise $60 million for political work, three times the union's expenditure in 2000, in addition to contributions from members to the union political fund -- an anticipated $11 million that can be used for candidate contributions or broader political work. Many unions also are more aggressively recruiting members for volunteer work. SEIU will pay 2004 "hero" volunteers to leave their jobs and spend from two to six months working in the 16 battleground states.

"This will be the single largest effort of any single organization other than a political party," SEIU President Andrew Stern said of his union's effort.

Show Us the Jobs

Labor's campaign, which also targets state and congressional races, will attempt to frame the issues of the election. At the top of the list is the Bush administration's jobs record, which at this stage is by far the No. 1 voting issue, according to a CBS poll in late February. Starting in late March, the AFL-CIO plans to take 51 workers who have lost jobs on a tour of key Midwestern states on a Show Us the Jobs Tour.

The Bush administration record -- nearly 3 million jobs lost and continued anemic job growth despite other signs of economic recovery -- is closely tied to another top issue with voters: the export of jobs overseas. Peter Hart Research reported that polling in battleground states showed that a bit more than half of all voters worry very often about jobs moving overseas (and three-fourths of swing voters say this loss of high-tech and white-collar jobs is a very serious problem).

To drive home the point, the AFL-CIO petitioned the Bush administration to take action against the Chinese government for a systematic violation of worker rights that directly undermines jobs and incomes of workers in the United States. It's the first time there has been an appeal for action on worker rights under Section 301 of the federal Trade Act, even though the option has existed since 1988. Trade deficit with China -- the largest the United States has had with any country and on that is extremely lopsided (the U.S. imports five times as much from China as it exports to China) -- gives credibility to the case for damages the petition outlines. At the same time, the AFL-CIO is cooperating with several business groups in another Section 301 complaint that workers (and businesses) in the United States are damaged by China's undervaluation of its currency.

"The goal is not to impose tariffs but to fix the problem," AFL-CIO trade expert Thea Lee said. "It's not anti-Chinese workers but anti-Chinese government."

Labor's 2004 political campaign also will highlight the healthcare crisis, which recently has dominated all union contract negotiations and was a central issue in the five-month southern California grocery workers strike. Although current workers preserved much of their health plan for now, they were forced to accept management's demand for a new two-tier wage pattern.

"There is not a union solution on healthcare," argued Joseph Hansen, the new president of the United Food and Commercial Workers. "It has to be a national political solution."

Despite divisions among unions over candidates in the Democratic primary, support for Kerry is universal. Also, despite the image of disarray, labor fortified with its enhanced political operations successfully influenced much of the emerging Democratic message on jobs, healthcare, trade, labor rights and other issues.

There's little doubt that the motivation to work hard exists. Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employee President John Wilhelm reflected the prevailing union view: "Those Bush people are scary."

David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times.
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