Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The role of trade unions in the US election

[Update: find an analysis of the results of union efforts here] - Unions play an important, if sometimes overlooked, role in American elections. While they may not be able to match the huge campaign donations made by large corporations, they make up for it by deploying large numbers of volunteers to mobilize workers to vote. In 2008, the Wall Street Journal called unions ‘the single-strongest force in elections, outside of the presidential candidates and the national parties’. How is this year’s campaign different from previous ones?

Reaching out to the general public
Much attention has been given to the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling allowing for huge campaign donations through super PACs. A less publicized side-effect of the ruling is that it allows unions to talk to the general public and not just their own members:

“Trust me, it's a horrible, horrible thing, and it's corrosive to democracy,” [AFL-CIO President] Trumka says of Citizens United. “The only good thing it did is, it gave us the ability to do a super PAC so that we could talk to nonunion workers.”

In addition, unions have stepped up their partnerships with other organisations, inlcuding online campaign organisation MoveOn.org, civil rights organisation N.A.A.C.P. and Planned Parenthood. In combination with the ruling allowing to talk to non-members, this makes for more effective campaigning:

“In 2000, canvassers might be able to reach only 20 doors in a two-hour shift, but now they can knock on 40 or 45 doors,” said Sasha Bruce, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s national campaigns manager. “And when we get people from other groups to join in, we’re literally knocking on hundreds of thousands more doors than we have the capacity to do on our own.”

Many newspapers have mentioned how the AFL-CIO uses Facebook to allow union members to reach out to their social network and urge people to vote. Perhaps more importantly, unions are playing an important role in empirical research on effective voter mobilisation. The New York Times describes how the AFL-CIO was among the founders of a research institute called the Analyst Institute:

The group almost entirely bypassed the brand-name consultants whom campaigns like to unveil in press releases. “It’s not the big names on the door,” says Maren Hesla, who directed Emily’s List’s Women Vote! campaign. “It’s all the — God love them — geeky guys who don’t talk to clients but do the work and write the programs.”

The lessons from empirical research quoted by the New York Times (e.g. asking people for their voting plans will raise turnout, as will making them aware you know they did not vote last time) are not exactly cutting edge, but perhaps the news consists in that they are now applied at a larger scale. An encouraging finding is that as far as direct mail is concerned, people respond better to boring envelopes than to glossy full-colour brochures.

Analysts agree that it is quite plausible that battleground state Ohio will decide the outcome of the election. Unions have started campaigning here early. Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect:

America’s most politically active union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), first deployed staffers to Ohio and key battleground states in March, says SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, with whom I spoke by phone on Saturday afternoon as she walked precincts in Cleveland. SEIU hasn’t confined its outreach to its roughly 30,000 Ohio members: 151 members from other states have taken off from their jobs to work fulltime in Ohio, 140 paid canvassers were hired for a joint project with another voter mobilization group, Progress Ohio, and roughly 2,300 SEIU members have volunteered to walk and phone this weekend and on Monday and Tuesday. All these campaign workers are focusing not just on SEIU members but on the state’s African-American and Latino voters as well.

Meyerson adds that there is a ‘high level of strategic coordination within what is still, formally, a divided labor movement’. While the SEIU reaches out to the African-American and Latino communities, the AFL-CIO has recruited over one million mostly white working-class Ohioans as members of its Working America programme.

In Wisconsin and Ohio, unions have campaigned against anti-union legislation proposed by their states’ governors. In Ohio, the unions won, in part as a result of a canvassing programme of Working America called ‘highly effective’ by the Analyst Institute. The state campaigns also had another effect:

“Unions have basically been in campaign mode for two years,” said William Powell Jones, a University of Wisconsin labor historian. “They’re stronger as a result.”

Long-term perspective
David Moberg of In These Times argues that political campaigns, especially campaigns that also reach out to non-members and build bridges with community organisations, may strengthen unions in the long run. He quotes an AFL-CIO spokesman talking about the campaign unions ran in Ohio earlier:

“Whether you were in a union or not, you saw organized labour last year as people in the community teaching our kids, keeping them safe, people plowing the snow and picking up trash. This is us.”

Moberg adds:

By reaching out and organizing working-class communities politically, unions may expand that feeling more broadly among workers that the labour movement “is us” as well. And that’s a political victory that might last many election cycles.

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