A peek at how unions “kick ass” in an election

CHICAGO – Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, there is wide agreement that the labor movement knows how to “kick ass,” when it comes to elections.

It was a sunny afternoon here Sept. 29 when the Peoples World got a chance to see, up front, just one way unions, in the 2010 mid-term elections, are accomplishing what they are famous for.

As thousands here began to head home at the end of their shifts that day, union transit workers, painters, food and commercial workers, chemical workers, steel workers, and communications workers took a detour – to the Painters Hall in the West Loop. There they got on the phones to alert their union brothers and sisters about the elections coming up on Nov. 2.

Derrick Vassel Sr., 44, the UFCW machine shop steward at H.I.G. Chemicals, arrived early, just before 3 p.m., took the top sheet off a thick pile of computer print outs and carried it into one of the private phone booths lining the walls in the two suites used for phone banking. The print outs, compiled by the Chicago Federation of Labor, list the names of every union member registered to vote in the Chicago area.

Vassel explained why he came back that afternoon for his third straight evening on the phones. “My family would not be a middle class family if I did not have a union job,” he said. “I earn a living wage and I want to maintain that. The Republicans want to destroy unions and take that away from me.”

Somone on the other end picked up after one of Vassel’s calls.

“I’m a union member calling you about the election Nov. 2, brother.”
After a moment of listening: “Yes, Brady (the GOP candidate for governor of Illinois) would be bad news for us, brother. He believes the minimum wage should be cut and voted against a $31 billion jobs bill.”

Vassel then reminded the same caller: “Giannoulias (the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate) saved hundreds of Illinois jobs at Hartmarx by threatening to remove public investment in the company that was going to close the plant.”

When he finished talking to the voter Vassel turned around and said, “I’m also doing this because I don’t like the way the tea party attacks the President. Obama has made a real effort and you can’t expect him to fix in two years all the damage that was done by the Republicans in the eight years before he got in.”

Union members making calls at the painters’ phone bank usually get a break around 5 p.m. when staffers bring in fresh hot pizzas and soft drinks. They broke a bit earlier than usual that day, however, when Richard Trumka, president of the 12 million-member AFL-CIO, entered the room.

As one after another of the callers recognized the celebrity in their midst, they finished the calls they were on and joined him in the middle of the room.

“I just wanted to thank all of you for being here,” said Trumka. “We’ve got just 34 days left but I think that because of what you are doing here and because of what union members are doing all over this country, we are going to make it. We’re going to uphold the reputation labor has for knowing how to ‘kick ass’ in an election.”

The president of the nation’s largest labor federation then told his union brothers and sisters at the painters’ hall that they were “heroes” who were key to the largest mid-term election effort ever in the history of the labor movement.

He described how, when you count leafleting, phone calls, door knocks, letters from co-workers and visits from local union officials at the workplaces, “every union voter in America will have been contacted 25 times before Election Day.”

He described how “every union local with more than 150 members, within days, will have its own elections coordinator.”

He told them there were some big hurdles yet to overcome. “As of last Friday, 68 percent of union members were still unaware of who their union had endorsed. Between now and Nov. 2 that has to be down to zero percent.”

And he shared with the workers on the phones some of the labor federation’s strategic thinking.
“We have a new Five Cities, Five States Program,” he said.

The five cities he was referring to are Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, District of Columbia, and Atlanta. The five states are California, Illinois, New York D.C. and Georgia.

“If we drive out our vote in those five cities and those five states the Republicans cannot take control of either the House or the Senate. It is that simple. We win.”

The union members in the room applauded. When he left they grabbed their pizza and got back on the phones.

Photo: John Wojcik Derrick Vassel works the phones to get out the vote.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.