Organized labor aims to expand political influence

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Organized labor's political operations go on without ceasing, and the approach of Election Day always multiplies the urgency. Unionists must maximize labor's political influence if they are to win gains for workers and improve the climate for union organizing. Business has the advantage when it comes to cash contributions, so labor relies on its strengths: numbers, and the ability to move them.

Two years ago, with several anti-union initiatives on the ballot in Oregon, it seemed every union staffer and active member in the state was drafted into the campaign to register and turn out union voters, with 40 staff flown in from the national AFL-CIO to boot. That effort was successful - 19,000 new voters were registered in union households, and 86.3 percent of those registered from union households voted, a rate 8 percent higher than the general population. It was the highest turnout among union members anywhere in the country. The anti-union measures - which were aimed at crippling labor's ability to be involved in politics - were defeated.

This year's union political mobilization is more modest, said Oregon AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Lanning. Still, union leaders expect to be able to build on the previous successes. With fewer people likely to vote in this mid-term election, a high turnout by union voters may prove even more decisive.

The first step in the campaign was to get union members registered to vote. Several unions stood out in this year's voter registration drive, which ran from late September to Oct. 15: Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which reported 1,400 new registrants among its newly organized home care workers; and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, which registered about 500 new voters.

UFCW, representing workers in grocery and food processing, has had a low percentage of registered voters in the past, in part because of its high-turnover workforce and a high proportion of minors and non-citizens. With the help of the Oregon AFL-CIO, UFCW matched its member database with county voter lists, and then union representatives went worksite-to-worksite giving lists of unregistered members to stewards.

UFCW political organizer Jeff Anderson said it helped that the union encouraged a kind of friendly competition to see who could register the most new voters. Mary Verboorten, a steward at Portland's Northeast Glisan Fred Meyer, took that prize, registering more than 30 of her co-workers.

Now that the registration deadline is past, unions are working energetically to mobilize members and to get information out about candidates' views on issues that affect them.

For the second time, the Oregon AFL-CIO has produced a voters' guide to detail the voting record of elected representatives and talk about why the union movement favors or opposes candidates and measures. This year's guide will be eight pages long and will be mailed to a couple hundred thousand union members.

Union phone banks have been in action since Labor Day - 12 phone lines in Portland and eight in Springfield, with computer-assisted autodialers.

And this year, for the first time, unions are even organizing canvasses in key legislative districts - house visits to members who are less frequent voters to find out what's important to them and talk about the issues and candidates that matter to them as union members.

Polling done by the national AFL-CIO showed that among those union members who were contacted in person at their workplace by their union about the election, 70 percent voted for the union-endorsed candidate. But only 11 percent of union members were contacted in such a way. Oregon's union activists hope to do better.

"We're trying to maximize the campaign in the workplace," said Patrick Green, campaign director of the Oregon AFL-CIO's 2002 political mobilization. "That's where unions have the most credibility."

To enable union members to work full-time on their unions' political mobilizations, the Oregon AFL-CIO is splitting the cost of "lost-time" wages with its affiliate unions.

Electrician Ilene Ferrell, a member of Electrical Workers Local 48, took a six-week furlough from her job at Rosendin Electric to work in her union's political campaign, working to recruit members to knock on doors of union households and staff phone banks. "We need to make sure pro-union candidates get into office and stay there," Ferrell said, "because they're the ones that fight for us when we need help."

Arthur Towers, executive director of the Oregon State Council of the SEIU, said his union is focusing on member-to-member contact on the phone and in the worksite. His union has 11 active members working on "lost-time." By mid-October, the union had made some 50,000 phone calls to union members, partnered with the Sierra Club to register hundreds of voters at large, and sent scores of volunteers on house-to-house canvasses for 13 candidates for the Oregon Legislature.

"Our members are connecting candidates to issues that affect them on their jobs," Towers said. "The 18-day special session in September was our best recruiting tool, because people looked at what the Legislature failed to do." Towers said more than 1,200 SEIU members in Oregon volunteered during the last election, and he hopes to get similar turnout this year.

To choose which candidates to support, the Oregon AFL-CIO measures candidates' union credentials by their voting records or, if they haven't held office, by their answers on a questionnaire. To make the best use of limited funds and energy, Lanning explained, the state labor federation uses a kind of political science triage, sorting candidates into Priority 1, 2 and 3. Priority 3 candidates are pro-union candidates that are almost certain to win or lose. Priority 1 candidates are pro-union candidates in close races. The latter get the most support, because that's where resources make the difference.

Some candidates are labor stalwarts from the start, particularly those who are labor union members themselves. Across the United States, an estimated 2,800 union members are now in elected offices - ranging from school boards to U.S. Congress. That includes seven of 90 state legislators in Oregon in the most recent session. Now, says national AFL-CIO Deputy Political Director Karen Ackerman, the goal is to get that number to 5,000. No definite time period has been set, but Ackerman says the AFL-CIO hopes to reach it within six to 10 years. Of course labor has plenty of friends among non-members as well. Pro-union candidates most often find a home in the Democratic Party, but there are pro-union Republicans and anti-union Democrats.

Ironically, it was Bill Sizemore's attack on unions' right to participate in the political process that spurred the biggest political mobilization ever by Oregon unions. This year Sizemore failed to qualify identical measures, but the issue is not likely dead forever; he announced plans to put such measures on the 2004 ballot.

Green admits union involvement in politics is not popular with everyone. "There are some members who don't like politics and don't understand why we're involved. Others are ideologically predisposed to support candidates we oppose."

But Towers says most union members understand that involvement in politics is vital to protecting worker interests. For Towers' public sector members, the reasons for union political involvement are obvious - they want to have a hand in choosing their employer, working conditions, and ensure their employer has adequate resources. Politics affect the private sector workplace just as much.

"There are lots of issues at the bargaining table that are affected by the political situation," says Green. "There are things you don't have to bargain for because they're part of the rule of law," Green adds, like safety standards, or a political fix to the crisis of out-of-control health care costs, or a law to end government contracts or tax abatements for companies that spend money fighting union drives.

To that list, Towers adds protecting workplace rights and funding for quality public services.

Victories can come quickly when a pro-worker majority is achieved, as in Washington state, where the Legislature recently passed laws preventing mandatory overtime for nurses, allowing workers to use sick leave to care for sick family members, and giving state employees, college professors, and grad students the right to bargain for a union contract.

Legislative victories could come in Oregon if voters send a pro-worker majority to Salem.

October 18, 2002 issue

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