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Britney Spears or Health Care?

Photo credit: Dave Engledow

Every evening, Kiel Macey goes door to door talking with working- and middle-class people in Pennsylvania about issues like health care, jobs and the U.S. economy. Even though most have just come home from work and are busy with dinner, their families and yes, television, many of them take time to talk with Kiel, a canvasser for the AFL-CIO community affiliate Working America.

Kiel’s goal is to sign up new members with Working America. When they sign up (at no cost, or for whatever they want to chip in), people who don’t have the benefit of a union on the job get a voice in a growing community of workers who increasingly have a major say in changing the political direction of the nation. Sometimes, as Kiel says, it comes down to this: Britney Spears or health care.

I spoke with a man who was hesitant to join, but invited me in to further inquire about our organization. While talking, the news on the television behind me was reporting Britney Spears was able to gather thousands of names in support of her in her child custody battle. After commenting on how absurd it was that millions of people could get behind Ms. Spears but we still don’t have enough organization in this country to have universal health care. Just then he grabbed the clipboard and became part of the solution as a member of Working America.

Health care is a blockbuster issue. But the hunger among working people to get involved in changing the direction of this nation goes well beyond this critical concern. There has been much hand-wringing over the past few election cycles about the increasing trend of America’s working class to vote against its interests. In What’s the Matter with Kansas, Tom Frank laid out that big fear, asserting that reactionary extremists’ appeal to divisive social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, will be the defining factor going forward for those whose economic interests are not served by the far right.

But did anyone think to actually talk with working people and share with them the reasons to vote for candidates who support affordable health care, secure retirements and work to keep jobs from going overseas?

Something happens when you converse with a low- or middle-income person about where their interests really lie: They get it.

There are lots of great canvasser encounters such as the one Kiel describes. So Working America last month launched a blog, Word on the Street, where canvassers blog their encounters and, along the way, show how one-on-one conversations can pave the road to a progressive America.

In Kentucky, where the union movement mobilized members for weeks to defeat one of the nation’s most anti-worker governors, Ernie Fletcher, and elect Steve Beshear, Working America outreach boosted voter turnout. Toya Ballenger describes one such encounter:

Tonight, I talked to a surprisingly eager 88-year-old man about politics. He was concerned about Kentucky’s economy, with all the jobs being shipped overseas. I handed him some literature like I always do, and proceeded to tell him that Steve Beshear, the labor-endorsed candidate for governor, was the best choice when it came to jobs. He told me he didn’t know who was running and wasn’t even registered to vote. In fact, his neighbor always made fun of him because he hadn’t voted once in his entire life. When he said that, I took out a voter registration card, handed it to him, and said, “Now your neighbor can’t make fun of you anymore.” He took the card from me and filled it out.

And from Kentucky canvasser Clarissa Lovelace:

This evening I spoke to a woman who was about to turn 81 years old, but looked more like she was about to turn 55. When asked her most important issue, she responded, “Health care.” She went on to say that, as an 81-year-old, she felt lucky to be in such perfect health. She added that she was apprehensive about the day she would need expensive prescription drugs….I responded that prescription drug costs were one of the biggest concerns of…Beshear, and that he had vowed to not only assist the elderly community, but would ensure that every child in Kentucky was insured as well. After hearing this, she seemed convinced Beshear was the right choice because of our endorsement.

Working America, which since its launch in 2003, now includes nearly 2 million members, has offices in eight states, including several in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Next year, Working America expects to be organizing in 16 states, with 25 offices overall. Each evening, canvassers go door to door, meeting individually with residents and discussing with them issues like the need to raise the minimum wage, protect overtime pay and ensure affordable health care.

Two of three people who answer the door join Working America, and the organization signs up some 20,000 new members each week. After people join, they are eligible to take part in e-mail actions and have access to features on the Working America website, such as Ask a Lawyer, where people can access answers to job-related legal questions.

While the election for governor in Kentucky wasn’t close—Fletcher lost by 18 percentage points—Working America members can tip the margin toward victory. Working America members in Kentucky supported the Beshear by a whopping 58-point margin, while the general public supported him by only 18 points. Union members overall supported Beshear by a 56-point margin.

In Ohio, Working America includes more than 734,000 members, making labor households a whopping 1.7 million—the single biggest voting bloc in the state.

Talk with Working America canvassers and they’ll tell you the top issues people raise at their doors: jobs, the economy, health care, education, the Iraq war.

Talk with Working America canvassers and they’ll tell you it’s just a matter of talking to people.

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