Labor’s challenge in this election was to provide the organizing to transform the workers’ frustration and anger into political power, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said at a post-election press conference Nov. 8.
It was not only labor’s message but its messengers who achieved that goal, said AFL-CIO Political Action Director Karen Ackerman. “Union members talked to union members,” she said. An army of 200,000 such “trusted messengers” knocked on 8 million doors and burned up the phone lines with 30 million calls — “mostly at dinner time,” she allowed with a smile.
Through a “targeted, focused, extensive political program we spoke to exactly the people we needed to,” she said. Much of the margin of victory would be found in “drop-off voters” — those who voted in the presidential election in 2004 but had not turned out in the last midterm contest in 2002. There were half a million such voters in Ohio alone. While sophisticated “micro-targeting” techniques identified these voters, it was fellow union members who contacted each such voter 20 to 25 times over the last year — at work, at home, by phone or by mail. The volunteers went directly to union members and their families with information, not rhetoric, on critical issues like the economy and Social Security.
“We met and exceeded all of our targets,” said Ackerman. Three-quarters of union members supported union-endorsed candidates in the congressional races.
The Democratic margin of victory in all congressional races was 6.8 million, she said, and the percent of voters from union households voting. Democratic provided 5.6 million of that margin, or 80 percent. The union vote figures include active workers, retirees, family members and the 1.5 million members of Working America, the new AFL-CIO affiliate for those who have no unions in their workplace.
“We were by far the most powerful turnout engine on the progressive side,” said Sweeney.
Sweeney made clear that the battle hasn’t ended with changing control of Congress. “We have no intention of depending naively on the Democrats to lead the way toward the changes working families showed they want,” he declared. Sweeney vowed to “keep up our campaign and keep working people working together to demand that Congress take decisive action.”
He spelled out a program he expects the new Congress to move on in its first hours in office: increasing the minimum wage, restoring workers’ freedom to organize, giving Medicare power to negotiate for lower drug prices, changing a trade policy which rewards companies that send jobs overseas, and restoration of funding for college “so all the children of working people can get an education.”
Sweeney also listed other urgent priorities — health care, rapidly bringing the troops home from Iraq, energy independence, funding public education and developing a “reasonable immigration policy that protects the rights of all workers.”
Gail Ganiszewski of Woodlawn, Pa., a member of the American Postal Workers union since she started at the Post Office at the age of 19 in 1973, said she had been a registered Republican. She told reporters that the push to privatize the postal service and fear of losing health care benefits “opened my eyes,” convincing her not only to change her registration, but, for the first time, to volunteer for her union’s 2006 election efforts. “I am a proud working class woman,” she said.
Ganiszewski was joined by Sharon Feemster, who identified herself as a 27-year worker in the final inspection department of Timken Steel’s Mansfield, Ohio, plant. “We are working harder, producing more, but real wages are falling behind,” she said. Feemster added she was especially concerned about the ease with which corporations abuse bankruptcy. She spent the days before the election phone-banking and doing plant gate literature distributions. “I was pleased with the outcome in Ohio,” she added modestly.
The two women from battleground states dramatized Sweeney’s observation: “Commentators have tried to separate voters’ concerns into neat boxes. Iraq. The economy. Health care. Corruption. But for working people, these are all different dimensions of a central reality, a country that is being dragged hard in the wrong direction. The Bush administration layered a terrible war in Iraq that has failed to make us safer onto an economy that has failed to help middle class Americans pay their bills.”