Unions: Mobilizing Voters for Nearly a Century

This week's post is by Mike Mathis, director of government affairs for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters

So how exactly did Karl Rove mastermind Republican victories in 2002 and 2004? By stealing a page out of organized labor's playbook.

Rove's 72-Hour Task Force, using professional and volunteer operatives to organize and lead a get-out-the-vote push in the final 72 hours before Election Day, was formed in 2001. Unions have been doing this for most of the past century.

Rove saw the writing on the wall shortly after the 2000 "election." Overall turnout was around 54 percent of eligible voters. Of those, 26 percent identified themselves as union members. By comparison, union workers made up only about 12 percent of the U.S. workforce. He conceded that the Dems had better GOTV organization, and that unions were a big part of that.

Rove needed a similar network that he could mobilize quickly. He targeted white evangelical churches. While organized labor focused its GOTV message on paycheck issues - the dwindling middle class, unbridled trade, a runaway health care system and disappearing pensions - Rove would goad evangelicals with gay marriage and fear.

By 2002, his 72-Hour Task Force was in place. In the 2004 presidential election, turnout climbed to 60 percent of eligible voters. Approximately 24 percent were union voters; 23 percent were white evangelicals. And, undoubtedly many union members had a foot in both camps.

My point is not to blame union members for voting Republican, although many are probably regretting it today. My point is this: You win elections by getting more of your supporters to the polls than your opponent, and unions have been doing that longer and better than any other group. Even Karl Rove thinks so.

Organized to Mobilize
In early 2004, a labor organization conducted a focus group of union members to find out how best to communicate through the mail about politics. The subjects were seated around a table and presented with a variety of sample political mailings. They were asked to sort through the stack as though they had just pulled it out of their own mailboxes and separate their mail into the following categories:


  1. Pieces they would never read (dropped on the floor).

  2. Pieces they would set aside to read later (placed in the middle of the table).

  3. Pieces they would open right away (placed right in front of them).


Some interesting patterns emerged. Glossy, three-color mailings that were from political parties went right on the floor.

Professional brochures from a specific candidate's campaign went in the center of the table to read later, along with personalized mailings from issue organizations like the Sierra Club. And, without fail, the piece that the members set right in front of them to open immediately was the plain white envelop from their local union.

A union's most effective political tool comes from its ability to connect with its members one on one at the local union level, as the study above indicates. That's because a member's relationship with his or her union is personal, just like one's church. It is this personal relationship that forms the basis of union activism and, by extension, political activism.

As many of you know, getting people to act is difficult. It requires trust. Because our members interact with their stewards and local officials everyday, trust is well established. One-on-one interactions, phone calls and those mailings from the local union are not unwanted solicitations, but opportunities to act for our common cause.

And many members do far more than vote. If you have ever worked on a campaign, you have probably stuffed envelopes alongside union members, staged GOTV drives from union halls or bumped into union members canvassing neighborhoods.

All Politics are Local
The very nature of a union's structure means that the majority of our attention is spent on state and local races.

In fact, one of the most common mistakes candidates or issue groups make is calling me and saying, "Mike, I would really like the Teamsters' endorsement." Most of the time I answer with a simple question: "Have you spoken to your Teamsters back home?"

I'm not the one who decides which candidate gets Teamster support and which ones don't. That decision is left up to our Teamster locals and joint councils - regional bodies that consist of three or more locals. Their members, staffers and leaders are the ones who know the candidates and the political makeup of the community, and who follow the issues that impact their lives and pocketbooks.

Now I'll tell you straight up that we do not give all our support to Democrats, and I don't regret that. In fact, I think that is one of the greatest weaknesses of the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO is viewed as an entirely Democratic organization and the Democrats have taken it for granted.

On average, more than 80 percent of our money and our endorsements go to Democrats because they are the ones supporting workers right now. But Teamsters are not afraid to stand up to Democrats or Republicans and say: "Hey, if you don't support my issues then I'm going to give my support to someone else." That gets their attention and gives us tremendous credibility as a union.

The bottom line is we are an American labor union that represents American workers. We are on Capitol Hill, in state legislatures and campaigning for the rights of our members, not for the Democratic Party. Teamsters are in small towns and big cities. We work in a broad cross-section of our economy. And, like America, we are evenly split politically among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. To unconditionally align ourselves with one party would be a disservice to our members and the labor movement as a whole.

Most of our locals and joint councils endorse candidates using a screening process. They will give candidates an opportunity to meet with them and discuss issues. If the candidate is an incumbent, they will look at his or her voting record.

This process is the same for city councilors as it is for U.S. senators. In fact, endorsements are perhaps more critical at the local level than for federal offices. This is true for several reasons:

First, money spent on local races has a bigger impact than on bigger campaigns. Federal-level candidates are more interested in big wallets than big ideas.

Second, most of your representatives in Congress are millionaires who come from millionaire families. Few if any have worked in a factory or driven a truck. They can't relate to working people. But many more state representatives, city and county officials come from working-class roots or have union backgrounds themselves.

Third, these local offices make decisions every day that have a direct impact on our members' lives and our ability to grow the labor movement.

Fourth, we are seeing results. We can achieve victories at the state level on issues Congress is afraid to touch. Take the minimum wage, for example. We have been involved with passing a higher minimum wage in several states, including Michigan earlier this year. Meanwhile, Congress uses the minimum wage as a political football and low-wage workers suffer because of it.

This election, we are active in about 15 states and, together with our affiliate unions in the Change to Win Federation, heavily involved in races in three states. I have to avoid specific references here because of FEC regulations.

Finally, by focusing on local politics and working with local Teamsters, we are able to identify and recruit the best union members to run for public office. Our DRIVE (Democrat, Republican Independent Voter Education) program provides the training, funding and strategic support fellow Teamsters need to run for and win public office. Hundreds have succeeded and support their union to this day. While other politicians are too often quick to forget their promises, we know Teamsters will stand by organized labor religiously.

Tags: Elections, Get Out the Vote, GOTV, grassroots, Karl Rove, Labor, local races, state races, Teamsters, Unions (all tags)

Comments

5 Comments

Interesting - what is there for non-union voters?

This is a very thought-provoking piece on the success of unions in getting voters out. The key: personal interactions.

From a Democratic Party standpoint, what other sorts of institutions can they rely on, other than unions, to do the same person-to-person GOTV? I can think of black churches, liberal advocacy groups (ACLU, Sierra Club, NARAL, etc.). But only some of these are "open right away" mailings. The black church does that work. What about for the mass of non-union  female moderate suburbanites? PTAs, maybe? That'd be a great turnout operation.

by elrod 2006-10-16 07:43AM | 0 recs
Re: Unions: Mobilizing Voters for Nearly a Century

We can rely on blog communities.  We can rely on other internet communities like MoveOn... another possibility is to mine the MySpace community...

by manyoso 2006-10-16 07:53AM | 0 recs
Thanks for posting

Thanks for posting, Mike. I think Labor and blogs are a natural alliance, and each can learn from the other. Local bloggers should try to get involved with local labor campaigns to see a what a good field program looks like. The most effective and least expensive persuasion vehicle is volunteer human-to-human contact. Labor has the infrastructure to talk to most members at the work site, but unions do much more than that: canvasses, union meetings, member-to-member letter writing campaigns, phone banks, etc. Blogs can also help unions get out their message not just about working families' issues, but also on Labor campaigns, from organizing campaigns to contract negotiation campaigns. I'd love to see greater cooperation between unions and blogs.

by domma 2006-10-16 08:48AM | 0 recs
Re: Thanks for posting

Thank you. I agree. And I believe that unions have a lot to learn from bloggers. Many union leaders are not as up on new technologies as probably most heavy bloggers are. And while we can reach our members one-on-one, we sometimes have a hard time reaching out to our communities as a whole. Blogging, especially on the city and state level, can reach a lot of like-minded people quickly.

We are working hard to talk and teach more about tech and communications and I would certainly invite all of you to reach out to your local unions. We could certainly help each other.

by Teamsters 2006-10-16 09:40AM | 0 recs
Re: Unions: Mobilizing Voters for Nearly a Century

talking about elections...what day this week does the 2nd half of the Majority Watch congressional polling come out?

by thorgrim 2006-10-16 08:51AM | 0 recs

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