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Good News For November 7: Labor Is United And On The March

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Those of us who are sick of being sickened by the country’s current political situation were understandably concerned about the breakup of the AFL-CIO last year and the effect the breakup might have on the 2006 elections. And that concern was not unjustified. Despite the shrinkage in labor’s numbers over the past decades, the labor movement’s political impact has remained impressive. For example,

  • Despite the fact that unions’ share of voting age population is 17%, there was a 24% labor turnout in 2004 and a 26% turnout in the 2000 election
  • In 2004, 68% of AFL-CIO members voted for John Kerry, compared with 45% of non-union households who voted for Kerry. In 2000, 61% of union members voted for Gore.
  • In 2002, labor voters made up a quarter of all voters and 60% supported Democratic candidates.

The good news is that both labor federations — the AFL-CIO and Change to Win — have decided to coordinate their efforts to educate and turn out members in the current political battle to take back one or both houses of Congress, as well as Governorships and local seats. Members of both federations have already been working together on the local level, due to the AFL-CIO’s creation of "solidarity charters". Despite some early problems, solidarity charters now represent about three-quarter of union members. The AFL and CTW will be merging member lists, working together on phone banks coordinating with local campaigns. In addition, the 2.8 million member National Education Association signed a pact with the AFL-CIO in February to coordinate their political campaigns.

In addition, despite losing several unions to Change to Win, the AFL-CIO has committed to spend $40 million on its political program this year, which will be the most ever for a mid-term election. It will be focusing on 21 key states and more than 200 Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative races. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest union in the AFL-CIO, is planning to mobilize a 40,000-member army of volunteers to register 90 percent of their 1.4 million members to vote and turn them out on Election Day, according to AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee. AFSCME is also concentrating on gubernatorial elections, for good reason:

The gubernatorial races are particularly important, says AFSCME political director Larry Scanlon, because they can have such an enormous impact on organizing rights. After losing Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky recently to Republican governors, collective bargaining rights in those states were virtually eliminated, he says.

Colorado’s gubernatorial election is important for another reason, according to AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman:

“Colorado has become very important to us because of the state Legislature and because it’s a potential right-to-work state.” In 2004, massive union efforts there won a pro-labor Democratic majority in the Legislature for the first time in 40 years — and blunted the right-to-work push of retiring GOP Gov. Bill Owens. Labor backs the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

OK, so there seems to be a will, and money to back it up. But will union members follow their leaders? The labor movement had a rude awakening in 1994 when both Houses of Congress turned Republican — with significant help from union members who failed to follow labor endorsements. The election confirmed a growing phenomenon — union members would no longer just blindly vote for candidates endorsed by their leadership — unless they had good reasons. In a classic "duh" moment, unions realized that they actually had to educate their members about why certain candidates were more supportive of the issues concerning workers people than others.

Thus began labor’s much praised (and copied) worker-to-worker political education campaign which this year means recruiting contacts in every local worksite, more direct communication from local union officials, conducting neighborhood walks and phone contacts, in addition to more traditional leafleting, topped off with a massive get-out-the-vote campaign as election day approaches. And if the polls are right, unions are plowing fertile ground. A recent Peter D. Hart poll for the AFL-CIO had some pretty good news.

  • 66% of union voters are very dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with the US Economic situation, compared with 55% of all voters. Most encouraging though is that 72% of voters who only occasionally vote Democrat are very or somehat dissatisfied with the economic situation and feel that their incomes are falling behind the cost of living.
  • The economy and health care are top voting issues for swing voters and union members (followed by border security and "moral values.)
  • Voters are much more likely to vote for a Democrat with a strong economic message (good jobs, containing the cost of health care & college), than Democrats with whose main message is getting out of Iraq or fighting corruption.
  • Rising costs of gas, health care and other essentials are a primary election concern among all voters. They’re also pissed off about "investing $811 billion in Iraq, neglecting health care and schools," as well as huge bonuses for corporate CEO’s while average familes are struggling.
  • Swing voters tend to get extremely upset when their member of Congress has voted for "billions in tax giveaways to the rich," while cutting Medicare/Medicaid and college aid. They’re also not pleased if their member voted to ban Medicare from negotiating perscription drug prices or took money from big oil companies.

Finally, I found this figure most interesting. When given a choice about which of these is the biggest problem with government:

Government spends too much, taxes too much, and interferes too much in things better left to individuals and business.

or

Government is too concerned with what big corporations and the wealthy special interests want, and does not do enough to help average working families.

only 28% agreed with the first, while 54% agreed with the second. Probably the more significant sign that labor still presents a formidable political force are the efforts of the right-wing to weaken labor’s political power. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempt to weaken the political clout of California public employee unions last year went down to defeat in a viciously fought referendum campaign. And we’re now seeing Richard Berman’s notorious Center For Union Facts Lies going after public employee unions in a number of states.

Of course, despite labor’s impressive clout, there is only so much that labor can do in an election, given that its 15 million members only represent 12% of the workforce. But it makes you wonder why every single Democratic politician is not dedicating his or her political life to doing whatever they can to strengthen the labor movement. I mean, just think of what America’s political landscape would look like if the labor movement doubled its membership.

 Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space

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Jordan Barab

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