Labor Makes Big Comeback In ’08 Races
By: Wall Street Journal
Ramping Up Spending, Unions Get Voters to Polls; The Battle in Nevada
By BRODY MULLINS
LAS VEGAS — Big Labor is growing new political muscles.
Even as the number of unionized workers falls nationwide, labor unions are showing increased power in this topsy-turvy election season. By deploying new strategies to use their money, unions have regained their position as the single-strongest force in elections, outside of the presidential candidates and the national parties. That’s a boost for Democrats, since labor is a pillar of the party.
Many thought campaign-finance reforms enacted in 2002 would diminish the clout of labor along with that of business. The law was meant to stem the influence of big money in politics by barring individuals, corporations, unions and other interest groups from making large donations to the parties.
But unlike companies, unions have adapted by shifting their spending to an often-overlooked part of campaigns: getting out the vote, or what pros call the “ground game.” Unions have continued to ramp up their political spending and targeted it to get out the vote for candidates that labor leaders endorse.
Nowhere has labor’s renewed electoral strength been more on display than in the run-up to tomorrow’s caucuses here in heavily unionized Nevada. The 60,000-member Culinary Union endorsed Sen. Barack Obama last week, while a group of smaller unions has been working for Sen. Hillary Clinton since the summer.
Labor officials began to re-emphasize campaign operations about a decade ago, as their shrinking membership was hindering their influence. They redoubled their efforts after the campaign-finance law took effect. Businesses still spend far more but haven’t adjusted as well: Their political spending has leveled off since 2002.
Labor’s rising influence was a little-noticed factor in Sen. Clinton’s surprise win in the New Hampshire primary last week. She beat Sen. Obama by 7,500 votes out of 290,000 cast — and with the help of three of the state’s largest unions, beat him by 4,000 votes among union workers alone, exit polls suggested.
One of those unions, the American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees, deployed 100 paid staffers and volunteers to the state to get its 4,000 members there to back Mrs. Clinton. On Election Day, the union team knocked on doors for the Clinton campaign. “I find that people are much more receptive to me than to the campaigns,” said Ken Fanjoy, a 53-year-old who plows streets along the state’s seacoast. “The first thing I say is, ‘I’m with your union.’”
In Nevada, unions have been battling over their election operations in court. Nevada Democrats had decided this year to hold nine caucuses in casinos on the Las Vegas Strip to make it easier for the Culinary Union’s main membership — casino workers — to vote. Thousands of cocktail waitresses, bellhops and maids planned to take a few hours off tomorrow for the caucuses, in which supporters of each candidate gather and try to win converts from the rival groups. When the union backed Sen. Obama, the Nevada State Education Association filed suit saying the practice unfairly favors casino workers. Yesterday, a judge allowed the casino caucuses to proceed.
Labor’s potential impact in New Hampshire and Nevada goes beyond the Democratic nominating contests. Both are considered swing states in the general election, as are several larger states with big union presences, including Pennsylvania and Ohio. A reinvigorated labor movement could tip some toward Democrats in November.
Labor’s impact emerges in a look at raw cash. In the past two elections, in 2004 and 2006, unions spent a combined $561 million to help elect mostly Democrats. That’s nearly a 50% increase over the $381 million spent on the previous two campaigns, according to data compiled for The Wall Street Journal by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Labor’s political spending already was rising fast in the 1990s — but so was the bigger spending by businesses.
The ground game is one of the fastest-growing elements of the labor spending. Unions spent $70.3 million getting members to vote in 2004 and 2006. That’s up 145% from $28.8 million in the two previous elections, according to the center’s figures. The money is spent to persuade members to back the union’s candidates and then make sure they vote.
Labor unions still spend only about half as much on elections as companies and their political action committees as a whole. But the gap is closing. In 2000, companies were responsible for three times as much spending as unions. By the 2006 election, companies and their employees spent $491 million on elections, compared with $264 million for labor unions. Those figures underplay labor’s impact because they don’t account for union members who take vacation time to knock on doors and drive supporters to the polls.
Corporations don’t spend much to try to get employees to vote, and their spending hasn’t rebounded. From the 2002 to the 2006 off-year elections, says the Center for Responsive Politics, corporate spending dropped about 9%.
Voting With Leadership
Labor’s investment may be starting to pay off. Union members have increasingly been voting with their leadership: 74% of voters who belong to an AFL-CIO-affiliated union voted for the congressional candidate endorsed by their union in 2006, up from 70% in 2004 and 68% in 2002, according to Peter D. Hart Research, a Washington polling firm.
The share of union members in the working population has been falling over the years, reaching 12% last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But exit polls show that voters living in households that include a union member make up almost one-quarter of those who vote in elections, a proportion that’s up since the 1990s. Those voters don’t necessarily vote for union-backed candidates, to be sure.
Labor spent $32 million on its own mailings and television and radio advertisements in months before the 2004 and 2006 elections, a nearly fivefold jump over the previous four years. In the past few months, unions have spent more than $4 million on advertisements and mailings, mostly to back Mrs. Clinton.
But the airwaves are jammed with political advertising, and labor’s unique contribution is its ability to find and motivate reliable Democratic voters. The Republican side relies on the religious right and a formidable database of conservative voters first built by former White House adviser Karl Rove in the late 1990s.
Nevada’s Democratic primary will pit the organizational efforts of unions against each other, though they expect to combine forces for November. Their strategy has three parts. For several months before an election, the unions work to win over voters. Union officials organize phone calls to members, send them campaign material and visit work sites to pitch the union’s candidates.
Using advances in computer technology and borrowing a page from corporate marketing, they use mapping software and generate a file on each of their members. Through weeks of calls and personal visits, they determine how likely each member is to vote for their candidate. Someone who is strongly committed is assigned a “1″ rating; someone definitely opposed gets a “5″; a “3″ is undecided. The union also tries to determine how likely it is that a member will go to the caucus.
About 10 days out, union organizers start door-to-door efforts to remind supporters and convince waverers to go to the caucuses. Finally, on Election Day they narrow down their efforts to the staunchest supporters. If they find one who hasn’t voted, they’ll sometimes drive them to the polls on the spot.
Though the Culinary Union didn’t endorse Sen. Obama until last week, its organizers have been going door to door since last summer to make sure its members were registered to vote and persuade them to back whichever candidate the union ended up endorsing.
With a large number of Hispanic immigrants in its ranks, the Culinary Union helped 2,000 immigrant members get citizenship so they could vote. But the union’s Hispanic population may cut into its effectiveness for Sen. Obama: Hispanics nationally favor Sen. Clinton by 56% to 11% in the most recent Wall Street Journal poll.
To increase its political staff around election time, the Culinary Union arranged with management to allow nearly 100 casino workers to take leaves and join the union’s political team. Last fall, the union mapped out where all its members live and started sending about three dozen organizers to introduce themselves, explain how the caucuses work and solicit votes.
In December, precinct captains made lists of members planning to caucus. When the union endorsed Sen. Obama, organizers hung signs on door knobs telling members and started asking them to sign cards pledging support. “When you go to the door and talk to people you’ve been talking to for a month already, they are willing to talk and they invite you in,” says Brandon Smith, a 29-year-old food runner for a downtown casino who oversees two precincts. “They are sick of people from the campaigns calling them.”
Doug Caston, a culinary union organizer on leave from his room-service graveyard shift on the Strip, won one and lost one on Wednesday, he recounted. At a house in a lower-class Las Vegas neighborhood, a high-school girl said she wanted to register for the first time, signed up on the spot and pledged to support Sen. Obama. “It was cool as hell to register a girl that was so young,” Mr. Caston said. But later, a 90-year old woman in his precinct said she had become too ill to leave her house this weekend. He didn’t argue. “We get a little relationship with these people,” Mr. Caston said later.
Caucus states rely most heavily on unions to help explain the process to voters and get them to go to the lengthy sessions. Nevada also has grown quickly in population, and many residents didn’t live in the state four years ago and have never attended a caucus before.
When the Culinary Union held most of its mock caucuses to train voters, it hadn’t endorsed a candidate yet. So it had people caucus for their favorite fast-food restaurant or candy bar, gathering in groups and then trying to win converts from the other side by claiming their pick had better french fries, bigger sodas or cheaper food. That’s not uncommon: At Clinton backers’ mock sessions, trainees caucused for their favorite pizza toppings, to help concentrate on the process instead of the politics.
The Nevada unions that back Sen. Clinton meet each day at 9:30 a.m. at a one-story union office directly under the flight path to the Las Vegas airport. There, the union leaders, all affiliated with the AFL-CIO, go through the day’s strategy and hand staff and volunteers folders with the names and addresses of likely Clinton voters.
Armed with Global Positioning Satellite devices to find their way, the staff and volunteers hit the road to knock on doors. Members rated as a “1″ are reminded to head to the caucus, given a Clinton button or bumper sticker and asked if they have questions. Those who are wavering or undecided get a brief pitch for Mrs. Clinton and a brochure detailing her positions.
In the past week, 10 paid union officials from the American Federation of Teachers worked Nevada along with scores of volunteers and retired teachers. Their goal is to talk to each of their 2,000 members and retirees a half-dozen times. “If you bother someone enough, they will turn out,” says Ruthanne Buck, a political aide at the American Federation of Teachers.
Earlier this week, Ms. Buck led a team of union volunteers as she plugged addresses into a GPS device and drove. Among her passengers was Dick Collins, a 61-year-old retired vocational teacher from New York who has volunteered for months. The hours have been more intense recently: “Up until about a week ago, I was getting a nap every day,” he says.
Wearing a royal blue “2008 Hillary AFT” T-shirt and dark blue Velcro sneakers, Mr. Collins knocked on a door of a one-story bungalow in one of the housing developments that now blanket the outskirts of Las Vegas. “I’m Dick Collins with your union,” he said. Inside a screen door, 73-year-old Margaret Raglin said she planned to vote for Mrs. Clinton, but couldn’t attend the caucus because she’d be working. “If you’re not at the caucus, you can’t vote,” Mr. Collins explained. That was news to Mrs. Raglin. “I’m glad you told me that,” she said.
“Maybe you should take work off,” Mr. Collins responded, joking: “I’ll call up and try to get the day off.”
Mr. Collins then offered her a quick tutorial: “First, don’t be late. Two, sit with Hillary people and be careful that they don’t try to pull you over to the other side. Three, make sure you’re counted.”
Write to Brody Mullins at email@example.com
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