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.