Lessons for Labor

Lessons for Labor

What unions did right–and wrong–in the 2004 election.


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.

It’s been hard for unions struggling to maintain their numbers to expand their clout at the ballot box. Although union membership has declined as a percentage of the workforce, the number of union-household voters did increase this year. At the same time, overall turnout was up, and the union-household share of the electorate slipped 2 percent from 2002. Unions also boosted members’ support for Kerry a couple of points above Gore’s vote. There will always be conservative union members who vote Republican, but the diverse nature of membership gives unions a better chance than many progressive groups to sway swing voters.

Because unions can use dues money only for political work among members, the challenge for labor–and the Democrats–is straightforward: “We don’t have enough union members,” says AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman. If unions represented the same share of the workforce that they did twenty years ago, Kerry would almost certainly have won.

The AFL-CIO tried to expand its political universe this year with a new organization, Working America. Organizers in Ohio–as well as smaller projects in Florida, Washington and Missouri–knocked on doors in working-class neighborhoods, finding people who were not union members but supported a lowest-common-denominator union agenda about jobs, healthcare and overtime pay. In less than a year they signed up 750,000 members, who then received mailings and visits about the election. Ultimately, they voted as strongly for Kerry as union members themselves. But unions are also reaching out beyond their ranks in other innovative ways. AFSCME, for example, tried an appeal targeted at single working women, a joint political and union organizing effort to register 200,000 home childcare providers and outreach to Puerto Ricans in Florida and Hmong in Minneapolis.

While Republicans nurture sympathetic groups, like conservative evangelical churches, CWA (communications workers) political director Michael Grace argues, “Democrats do a terrible job” and fail to recognize how their fate is tied to that of organized labor. “Progressives and Democrats have to own the fact that the future of the movement for social justice depends on the vitality and health of the labor movement,” says AFL organizing director Stewart Acuff. “That’s not to say we’re enough by ourselves, but there’s no hope if we don’t rebuild the labor movement.” That’s why there’s a big political stake in fighting little-noticed GOP initiatives to make it harder for unions to organize, like a recent National Labor Relations Board decision that will make it even tougher to unionize the growing ranks of temporary workers.

Most labor leaders agree on the need to ratchet up organizing–but many disagree about how to make that happen. The debate about organizing strategy and internal restructuring that is currently roiling the labor movement was triggered immediately after the election, when SEIU president Andrew Stern presented proposals for consolidation of unions around well-defined industrial jurisdictions and massive new coordinated organizing efforts, including an initiative to take on Wal-Mart. Sweeney has supported some similar reforms, but it remains to be seen how the federation will respond to Stern’s specific proposals, which have provoked both institutional resistance to change and legitimate disagreement about what reforms are needed and how they should be implemented.

Another lesson from labor’s political mobilization is about what Democrats’ political message should be. After the election, some strategists urged Democrats to be more religious and culturally conservative. But the unions’ political work argues instead for focusing on social and economic morality. To the extent unions found success in this election, they found it by emphasizing the need for affordable healthcare, job creation and fairer trade agreements, retirement security, protection of overtime pay and other bread-and-butter issues, such as the successful initiatives to raise the minimum wage in Nevada and Florida.

The second most important issue for the Democratic electorate and for union members was the war in Iraq. Perhaps because it was tied to Kerry’s muddled position, however, the labor movement did not vigorously oppose the war during the campaign. Some unions didn’t mention Iraq; the AFL-CIO produced one leaflet criticizing spending $200 billion on Iraq while needs are unmet at home. At least labor did not actively support the war (in sharp contrast with the Vietnam War), and several big unions, including AFSCME, SEIU and CWA, advocated withdrawing US troops now. Yet in the end, even though union members were primed to make their presidential decision in terms of a troubled economy and a misguided war, only 51 percent who ranked the war as the first or second most important issue (40 percent of union voters) voted for Kerry.

The results of labor’s strong economic message were dramatic, nevertheless, with union members supporting Kerry even when they were part of demographic groups that were generally stalwart Bush backers. While white men overall favored Bush by eighteen points, white male union members favored Kerry by twenty-one points. Gun owners in the general public favored Bush by twenty points; unionist gun owners favored Kerry by twelve points. Kerry lost seniors overall narrowly, but won by a margin of forty-one points among seniors in unions. Weekly churchgoers gave Bush a margin of twenty-one points, but if they were union members, regular churchgoers voted for Kerry by twelve points. Economic issues, argues UNITE HERE (textile workers, hotel and restaurant employees) political director Chris Chafe, “can bring out your values messages. Healthcare is a moral issue for us. Social Security and retirement with dignity are moral issues with us.” It’s a morality, wedded to self-interest, that resonates far beyond labor’s ranks.

But there are hard lessons for the unions as well. Many union members are rightly cynical about how seriously top Democratic politicians are committed to the economic issues that unions emphasize, especially trade and corporate power. Unions must work with their progressive allies to push the Democrats in a more populist direction, even as they stake out their political independence. To do that, their political work must be ongoing, not intermittent spurts around election time. The education work must also be more thoughtful than a series of election-year leaflets, not only promoting deeper understanding of the core economic issues but also critically analyzing America’s role in the world. There must be more effort to get members to reach out to each other in their workplaces and communities: The flood of union staff and members from blue to battleground states showed great solidarity, but it’s ultimately no subsitute for home-grown networks. Most of all, there’s an urgent need to make the right to organize freely at work the new civil rights movement–and to reform internally to make such organizing possible.

There’s no magic solution for the Democrats, but writing off organized labor would be a colossal error. The shrunken labor movement is certainly not a sufficient foundation for victory now, given its weakness through large swaths of the country (not surprisingly, the “red” states). But there’s a strong argument that the long-range prospects for progressive Democratic politics hinge on efforts to expand the labor movement–both through traditional organizing and through strengthening organizations like Working America. And this requires making the core message of the Democratic Party the promise of economic and social justice.

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