On election day, Milwaukee County Labor Council president John Goldstein, wearing a black T-shirt proclaiming, “We’re Taking Back America,” was juggling a CB radio, walkie-talkie and cell phone simultaneously, helping to deploy 400 union volunteers. They were out in neighborhoods, knocking on doors and dragging voters to the polls; monitoring polling irregularities; urging voters to have patience with long lines; and working for other organizations, such as the Democratic Party and America Coming Together (ACT). But this frenzied activity simply capped at least a year’s organizing by unions reaching members by telephone, mail and visits at home and work. Union swing voters got around thirty contacts, including mailings on issues “sandwiched” between reinforcing calls and visits. Union-backed programs greatly increased registration of both members and nonmembers.
Across the country, especially in battleground states, the labor effort was similarly intense, with more unions working harder and longer than ever. “There was more–underlined five times–of everything,” said AFSCME (public employees) president Gerald McEntee. This year’s mobilization coordinated by the AFL-CIO was more than three times larger than in 2000, with 5,000 staff and members paid to work full time on politics and more than 225,000 volunteers. Unions contacted 92 percent of members by mail at home, doubling the 2000 effort, and 31 percent personally at work, an increase by half in their most effective tactic. Unions spent massively, more on voter education than on campaign contributions. The total isn’t available, but the SEIU (service employees) spent $65 million, AFSCME $50 million and the AFL-CIO $45 million.
In the end, of course, it didn’t do the trick, either nationally or in a key labor stronghold, Ohio. But both directly and acting indirectly through other groups, unions proved again to be the cornerstone of Democratic politics, especially in personal contact with voters, where the war was fought most intensely. Union members turned out in greater numbers than average: They are 8 percent of eligible voters but were 14 percent of voters in the presidential election, and another 10 percent of voters came from a household with a union member.
They also voted disproportionately for Kerry. A postelection poll by Hart Research for the AFL-CIO found that union members voted for Kerry over Bush by 65 percent to 33 percent. In the battleground states, where labor’s effort was most intense, Hart found that AFL-CIO members voted for Kerry 68 percent to 31 percent. Other exit and postelection polls showed a slightly smaller majority–ranging from 61 to 63 percent–of union members voting for Kerry nationally.
Labor’s political operation, which has steadily improved since John Sweeney became president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, was technically more sophisticated this year, and there were more ways in which everyone, from union presidents to local organizers, was held accountable. Unions also did more to get members active, as when the SEIU paid 2,038 members to take leave from their jobs to be “Heroes” doing full-time political organizing. This grassroots push built “a level of member activity and skill” that will strengthen unions in organizing and other work, argues SEIU international secretary treasurer Anna Burger. Even in losing, many members were excited by the work. “I’m part of the process,” Harvey, Illinois, street departmentworker Brian Boyd said as he volunteered in Milwaukee. “I can look in the mirror and say, ‘I did fight the man.'”
But labor’s work is important far beyond its ranks. If Democrats hope to win in the future, it’s important that they learn at least two lessons from the union effort. First, ongoing organization and direct, personal contact with voters are crucial. Both Democratic Party organization and voter party identification have slipped drastically in recent decades. This year new groups, like ACT, inspired by labor’s success in recent elections, took on some traditional party tasks of registering, educating and mobilizing voters. But Bush won partly because Republicans, learning as well from labor, mounted a massive volunteer mobilization effort that was complemented by conservative churches, the GOP’s counterpart to organized labor.