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

Election '16

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.”

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.

In Massachusetts, Working America is organizing around Elizabeth Warren's Senate race. “We've been organizing for nearly 10 years among working-class moderates, the people who are most likely to be swing voters, those who have no other entry into the progressive movement -- and those are the people who are having the hardest time getting to know Elizabeth Warren,” Nussbaum notes. Those are the voters, it's worth pointing out, that pollsters constantly obsess over, particularly those swing, white, working-class men who have been courted so heavily the last two election cycles. When organized labor was strong, those voters tended to vote Democratic. If groups like Working America can build an awareness of economic issues among those voters, that could be game-changing.

Working America is even trying its hand in organizing the South. Notoriously non-union North Carolina, where the Democrats just wrapped up their convention, is the latest state where they're working. “We started organizing in February and we already have something like 20,000 members,” Nussbaum says. “The labor movement was thrilled to have us build out some worker power out there.”

In a post-Citizens United world, fighting to create consciousness among working-class voters is an uphill battle, and that hill is greased with millions of dollars in corporate advertising.

Beyond the Workplace

Back in the Columbus field office, Morgan, whose T-shirt has Sally Field as Norma Rae holding her “UNION” sign over her head on the back, leads the debrief and goal-setting session before we head out into the field. I learn that this particular office is one of the best in the country both at signing up members and at fundraising. The canvassers themselves set the goals, inching the numbers higher from the previous week. Barb, a middle-aged African-American woman, says, “My goal is to break that office record.”

After the goal-setting, they go through a quick training—there are several new canvassers in the room—working on their “rap” for the door, the way they get the person who answers to take the iPad from them, to read the issues listed on it.

On the wall there's a photo of a handwritten sign stuck on a door. It reads “No solicitors, Working America welcome.”

“I think this is the whole story of Working America right there in that one sign,” Nussbaum says. Theresa Bruskin, the field director in Columbus, who started out as a canvasser, notes that the success of the organization is tied to the way canvassers feel a part of the work—it's not a revolving door like so many canvassing jobs can be, where college kids work for a few months and then go back to school. The job includes listening as well as pitching, finding out which issues matter to people, and reporting those back.

“We track every week, we ask everybody at the door what issue's the most important. We get a sense every week as to whether the trends on that are changing,” Nussbaum says. “The jobs crisis is personal for most people, we hear about that a lot.” Outsourcing, she notes, is one of the things that most people associate, policy-wise, with the jobs crisis. In 2010 few candidates were discussing it, but canvassers heard about it again and again, and they pushed to make it a more central issue in other campaigns (like Sherrod Brown's Senate race).

Healthcare remains a big issue for Working America members, many of whom have little information about what was actually in the Affordable Care Act (and tend to like it better after it's been explained). Heck says this is one of the things they do that matters—being an organization that goes door-to-door year-round, having personal conversations with people about issues cuts through the media noise.

What all of these issue and election campaigns have in common, though -- what they all boil down to – is an attempt to rebuild a belief in collective power. “This notion that you're stronger together, that you can be a countervailing force, you can stand up to your employer, this notion about collective power has been stripped right out of society,” Nussbaum says. “That's the most devastating result of the attack on unions in particular, the idea that self-reliance is the only solution is so predominant that it becomes a huge obstacle for us as a progressive movement.”

To get beyond that problem, Working America is now focused not only on meeting and signing up members door-to-door, but on getting current members to reach out to their own networks, to make sure they're engaging friends and neighbors on the issues. Signing up for an email list, as we all know these days, often isn't enough to get real engagement from people. Organizing, not just canvassing, matters. Nussbaum believes that they're getting somewhere by getting people to start thinking about their jobs and economic issues as something they can change, getting beyond the fatalistic attitude so many have about the economy and their personal situation after four years of misery.

“We feel like we've got a key to the future of the 21st-century labor movement and we all want to be a part of shaping that,” Nussbaum says. 

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