Unions help shift red states to blue

A united labor movement, fighting for a U.S. economy that once again creates millions of good-paying jobs, is on the verge of making history.

In the final days of the election countdown, an unprecedented labor mobilization to make Barack Obama President Obama has helped force John McCain to defend states like Virginia, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina — states once seen as solidly Republican, but now making a historic shift.

Labor leaders and rank-and-file union members are proud of what they see as the key role they have played in shaping how the public views Obama on the economy — seeing him as far more qualified than McCain to cope with the raging crisis.

When Obama addressed more than 100,000 in Denver last week, he put forward a theme that has been part of labor’s effort to elect him. “We know what the Bush-McCain philosophy looks like,” Obama declared. “It is a philosophy that says we should give more and more to millionaires and billionaires and hope that it trickles down.”

Virginia, long considered a “red” state, exemplifies how the labor movement has helped to send the Republicans running scared.

Hundreds of workers greeted Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on her recent visit to Richmond. Carrying signs with slogans like “Obama u betcha” and “Wiser older women for Obama-Biden” and “It’s the economy — Sarah. Don’t change the subject,” they cheered and drew honks of support from the steady stream of cars passing by.

That action took place only days after Nancy Pfotenhauer, one of McCain’s senior advisers, tried to convince an NBC commentator that Virginia’s tilt to Obama was only because of northern Virginia which, she said, didn’t qualify as the “real” Virginia because it is home to “Democrats who moved in from D.C.”

Richmond, according to Pfotenhauer, is part of the “real” Virginia. And union activity has been intense not only there, but also throughout the state.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka mentioned Virginia in a recent talk at the University of Illinois in Chicago. His description of labor’s effort there contrasted sharply with the divide-and-conquer approach of the McCain campaign: “The effort in Virginia was built from the ground up by affiliates across the state working together. It’s one movement of men and women, young and old, white collar and blue collar, of every race, every faith joining together, working together, fighting together, winning together.” Trumka himself has made history this year by spearheading a concerted campaign by labor to combat the effects of racism in this election.

On the national level the labor movement has launched an intense get-out-the-vote drive for the final days of the campaign.

The AFL-CIO has a record 250,000 volunteers and 4,000 paid staffers assigned to 20 battleground states in the presidential race, 12 Senate races and 60 House races. In some states, like Minnesota, Oregon and New Hampshire, the unions are involved in both the presidential contest and a Senate race, and in New Hampshire they are also working on a House campaign.

The other top battleground states for labor are Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Virginia and North Carolina, two of the least unionized states in the country, are also on the list.

Union efforts for Obama in both Virginia and North Carolina are being spearheaded by the Communications Workers and the Steelworkers, two of the largest unions in Virginia.

The AFL-CIO estimates that total spending by its member unions will be $250 million.

This does not include spending by Change to Win, the other major labor federation. One Change to Win union, the Service Employees, is, by itself, spending more than $100 million.

During the last seven days of the campaign 25,000 union volunteers from California, Illinois and New York, which are not battleground states, are being deployed into the battlegrounds to make contact with union voters. The levels at which volunteers and staff engage voters are unprecedented.

Josh LeClair, a union volunteer in Orlando, Fla., told the World that he met a retired autoworker who was a World War II veteran at the man’s trailer home. The gentleman greeted him with a vow that “he could not vote for that Muslim.” LeClair spent over an hour with the veteran debunking false rumors, and discussing McCain’s record on Social Security and veterans’ benefits. He went back a day later with literature on the issues and spent time telling the voter about his grandfather, also a World War II vet and was able to part company with the voter who told him he was now an Obama supporter.

The final push plan also features 70 million phone calls, 10 million door knocks, 57 million mailings and the distribution at worksites of 27 million fliers focusing on economic issues.

Also included is what the AFL-CIO calls a “microtargeted approach” to some of the most difficult-to-reach voters, including veterans, retirees and gun owners. Many of these voters have been contacted 20 or more times and the unions plan to reach all of them in the final days of the campaign.

A nationwide “Final Four Day Blitz” is under way to reach every union member identified as an Obama voter and ensure their turnout.

Voter-protection programs are under way in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Virginia, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. In Ohio and Michigan labor’s voter protection groups have already done extensive work rebuking claims made by the GOP in those states that numerous groups of people are, for various reasons, ineligible to vote. The protection program is placing union poll watchers at polling places across those states.

jwojcik@pww.org