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Unions Are Out in Force for the November Elections

Despite the AFL-CIO split following the 2004 election, labor unions are gearing up for the November elections like never before.
 
 
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On a warm September evening, retired teacher Pat Ryan and community college maintenance worker Al Wesley were knocking on doors in a modest neighborhood of Austin, a town in the flat farm country of southern Minnesota. They were passing out leaflets to union members like themselves and identifying likely supporters of labor-backed candidates, such as Tim Walz. A teacher, union member and veteran of the Army National Guard, Walz is running a strong pro-worker, antiwar campaign against conservative Republican incumbent Gil Gutknecht.

Walz is counting on union troops like Ryan, who worked across the hall from him, and Wesley, a vet whose daughter is now in Iraq and whose politics were shaped twenty-one years ago by his participation in a high-profile strike against the Austin Hormel plant. "A good portion of our electoral strategy hinges on organized labor," Walz says, "and we've said all along that organized labor issues are not just union issues. They're American worker issues." In Congressional races across the country, especially key contests in the Midwest and Northeast, Democratic candidates similarly depend on the political effectiveness of a shrinking labor movement that split apart a year ago.

Broad sentiment against Bush and misgivings about the war have opened up rare opportunities for Democrats, but in a non-presidential year with Republicans strengthening their turnout strategies, they will need a mighty push from grassroots voter mobilization. And no push is more important than labor's. The good news for Democrats is that despite its problems, organized labor is mounting a record effort, maintaining roughly the same level of union political cooperation as before the split, and finding new ways to expand its influence.

Despite the split, the AFL-CIO did not reduce its $40 million budget for this election cycle, the largest ever in a nonpresidential year. And while labor concentrated on sixteen battleground states in the 2004 presidential election, this year the AFL-CIO is targeting more than 200 races in twenty-one states, including many gubernatorial races. The new Change to Win Federation is focusing on only three states, but most of its affiliates are casting a much wider net. Individual unions in both federations report putting as much or more money and effort into a larger number of races than ever before. Even more than in 2004, member activists -- not union staff -- are contacting fellow unionists at work, in neighborhoods and by telephone.

"This is a turnout election year," AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman says, not a time like 2004 for voter persuasion or registration, though union registration efforts continue, especially with immigrant rights groups. "Our job is to reach people who voted in 2004 but not in 2002 among union members and families and make special efforts to get information to them."

According to a Hart Research poll, so-called drop-off Democratic voters, who have become politically disengaged in the last few election cycles, are more dissatisfied and inclined to vote Democratic in response to key labor issues -- regarding jobs, healthcare, education -- than even the average union member. And voters overall, Hart concluded, are significantly more motivated to vote Democratic by labor's message on the economy than by Democratic attacks on the Iraq War or corruption.

So drop-offs make ideal targets for union political organizing. Voters in union households, compared with nonunion households, are more likely to vote, and when they do, they tend to vote Democratic. Political scientist Peter Francia's new book, The Future of Organized Labor in American Politics, concludes that labor has grown more effective politically since John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO in 1995. And even though a 2004 study by Harvard economist Richard Freeman casts doubt on labor's claim to have expanded its share of the electorate since the early 1990s, union households still account for roughly a quarter of all voters. This is impressive, given that unions represent a shrinking share -- about one-eighth -- of the workforce.

Faced with that dwindling base, unions have demanded more support from politicians for organizing, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, which provides less burdensome union recognition procedures. And Change to Win wants to refocus its political strategy even more toward union growth, UNITE HERE chief of staff Chris Chafe says. But the labor movement is also expanding the universe of voters -- union and nonunion -- it can mobilize. Over the past three years, the AFL-CIO has recruited more than 1.5 million members in about fifteen states to its new "community affiliate," Working America. Its members are mainly middle-income workers who sympathize with labor's broad goals but do not belong to unions. In Ohio one in ten households will be part of Working America by this election.

They were recruited by organizers like Kirby Torrance, a curly-haired recent Sarah Lawrence graduate who was knocking on doors this fall in Coon Rapids, a remote Minneapolis suburb of split-level houses and driveways filled with pickups and SUVs. At each house Torrance delivered a short, vigorous argument about how Working America was fighting for affordable healthcare (or good jobs), asking any adult in the house to sign up and "send a strong message to our representatives." Two-thirds typically do, and even if their initial commitment is superficial, they receive information about elections, issues and legislation. Lake Research studies for the AFL-CIO suggest that Working America boosts turnout and support for labor candidates dramatically, for example, lifting participation by drop-off voters by twenty percentage points above the general public's.

Larry Meyer, a 56-year-old independent salesman, is the kind of nonunion worker Working America seeks. With health insurance costs increasing and coverage shrinking, Meyer, who faces three major surgeries this year, is concerned about both health insurance and the health of the country. "I'm not a very political person, but I think our country has gone so far off the deep end, we need to get it back on track," he says. "We're not a democracy. We're heading the other way."

Unions have also forged alliances with other groups to generate voter enthusiasm for their issues and candidates. Working Families Win, a partly labor-funded project of Americans for Democratic Action, organizes nonunion activists from small cities in eight states to reach voters about trade and related economic matters. ACORN, working with unions, has put minimum-wage referendums on four state ballots, potentially boosting low-income-worker turnout. And the union-backed Working Families Party, which gives voters a chance to support Democrats while sending a distinct worker-oriented message, is organizing in two key, hotly contested Congressional districts -- an upstate New York seat vacated by Republican Sherwood Boehlert and a competitive Connecticut seat held by Republican Nancy Johnson.

Beyond expanding its turnout operations, labor is strengthened by what it didn't do: splinter. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win negotiated agreements permitting local CTW unions to receive "solidarity charters" so that they could continue to participate in the AFL's central labor councils or state labor federations. And this summer the two federations formed a National Labor Coordinating Committee for politics. "We're uniting across the labor movement with both federations to assure maximum turnout," says Chafe. "There's a lot more common ground than differences with the AFL-CIO when it comes to political action," including near complete overlap in lists of top targets.

In many areas, the split has had little effect: In Austin, Ryan and Wesley are AFL-CIO members, but their labor-to-labor walk was organized at the local of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a CTW union. CTW unions can decide state by state how they want to participate in the AFL-CIO program -- neighborhood walks, polling, research, mailings. The Carpenters and Teamsters seem to share membership lists the least with the AFL-CIO, and the Service Employees (SEIU) maintain considerable independence, but in some states CTW unions participate fully in AFL-CIO operations. Even before the split, however, many local or national unions had gone their own way.

"The impact of the split has been minimal so far," says AFSCME political director Larry Scanlon. "Unions on both sides realize there's a bigger picture out there." And Communications Workers District 4 vice president Seth Rosen notes, "If you're a local-level activist [in Ohio], it would appear there's more cooperation than there was two years ago."

The delicately negotiated cooperation between the two federations raises questions about why they even split. But despite critiques raised a year ago about the AFL-CIO's political focus, CTW leaders argue that the break was really more about how the two federations will organize new workers.

They broadly agree on workplace and economic issues, though some unions give special emphasis to topics like trade. CTW unions highlight their work on state races, according to SEIU government affairs director Ellen Golombek, because workers can win a bigger voice on matters that affect their lives now at the state rather than the federal level. But there's little discernible difference from what the AFL-CIO is doing in states.

A year ago CTW and a few AFL-CIO unions were urging more labor support for Republicans. But if anything, there now appears to be a slight shift toward greater Democratic partisanship from all unions, especially at the federal level. "We've tried to be bipartisan," UFCW political director Michael Wilson says, "but the number of Republicans we can support is relatively small." Another union endorsed some Republicans without fanfare as part of its bipartisan strategy and simultaneously increased support for comprehensive Democratic mobilization.

Moreover, unions are now heavily invested in certain races, such as three Connecticut seats held by Republicans, that were not previously on their radar screen. "These races could change the makeup of the House of Representatives," Connecticut state AFL-CIO president John Olsen said. "It's energized people."

In the high-profile Connecticut Senate race, however, labor is deeply split between antiwar insurgent Democrat Ned Lamont and the defeated Democratic incumbent, Joe Lieberman, now running independently after receiving an AFL-CIO endorsement for the primary only. Although union strategists recognize that the Iraq War is a critical issue, most argue that unions are mainly credible with members when they address issues related to work and economics. Some individual unions and the AFL-CIO plan to criticize the budgetary impact of the war, but even in a union ardently opposed to the war, UNITE HERE, two big New Haven locals, back Lieberman, largely because he supported their most recent strike.

Labor's biggest political conundrum is immigration. "It's a huge issue, much bigger than I expected," Scanlon says. Even in southern Minnesota, Gutknecht is running an anti-immigrant campaign. Walz responds by emphasizing the unworkability of Republican plans, the need to enforce labor laws and deal with the economic roots of immigration (including NAFTA), and the potential to combine border security with a path to citizenship for all immigrants. It's a sound strategy but not likely to neutralize immigrant-bashing rhetoric. As one labor expert on immigration acknowledges, "Nobody is talking about it because nobody knows what to say. So it's not part of the political program."

In many states, such as Minnesota and Ohio, union political strategists are enthusiastic about Democratic slates with a strong prolabor message. "What makes the work better this year is that candidates are running on the same position as we talk about in the workplaces," says John Ryan, leader of the Cleveland-area labor federation, now working as manager of Sherrod Brown's Senate campaign. "Members don't turn on the TV and see a message that's different."

Despite anxieties that unions are not really gearing up adequately to exploit their opportunities, both anger at Bush and economic insecurity are spurring grassroots activism in many areas. As Al Wesley said, after door-knocking in Austin, "You've got to do something. You can't just sit on your hands."

David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times .

 
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