Interviews with AFSCME workers: Mixed election outlook, major voter suppression worries
AFSCME members, led by union President Lee Saunders, rally with workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. | @AFSCME via Twitter

PHILADELPHIA—With approximately four months to go until the November off-year election, interviews with a selection of union members—whose organization, AFSCME, is among the most politically active in the U.S.—show a mixed outlook. Several cited instances of voter repression in Texas and Florida as particularly worrying.

The talks with the unionists about their views and especially those of their friends, neighbors, and families reveal a mix of unease, questions, and some enthusiasm for the fall campaign. But the latter isn’t widespread.

They also show how far union leaders, their members, and their allies must go to “rev up the troops” to fend off the constant and accelerating right-wing onslaught—not just on issues but on the very concept of democracy.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders, in his keynote address to the thousands of delegates and guests who met in the union convention in Philadelphia July 11-15, did his best to marshal them.

“I’m not going to lie to you, AFSCME family: We’ve got to get it done in a very difficult political environment. I’m asking you to have conversations with your co-workers, to register voters, to get folks to the polls,” he declared.

“I’m asking you to dig deep to put pro-worker candidates over the top in November…. This is our chance to elect the folks who make decisions affecting our pay and benefits.”

It’s also a chance, Saunders said, to solidify and expand current narrow congressional pro-worker majorities, and to elect more pro-worker governors and state legislators.

And to push the legislative achievements of the last two years, including pulling the nation’s workers out of the coronavirus-caused economic depression and enacting a five-year $1 trillion jobs-creating infrastructure law where prior presidents and Congresses failed.

That leads Donald Day of Local 4773 in Philadelphia to give people a blunt message: “There’s a direct connection between their paycheck”—public or private—“and legislation.”

Interviews showed not everybody outside the union movement sees that.

“People are disgusted,” said New Jersey delegate Norman Rogers. “They don’t see politicians keeping their promises, even at the local level. What to do? Convince people to elect candidates whom they can trust.”

Even though the coronavirus pandemic has receded from prior highs, it still makes that task tougher, says delegate Amy Pena of Portland, Ore. “We have to do things differently now, use technology more” to reach voters “and be creative” in contacts.

The constant chaos and partisan hatred in Washington, which has infected state capitols, local city councils, and even school boards, tires people, she adds. Voters “want things to be normalized as much as possible…In Oregon, some of them (politicians) get it.”

Pena spends her time off the job advocating comprehensive pro-worker labor law reform, gender pay equity, and workers’ rights for all. But she also faults lawmakers for ignoring one big issue that affects everyone: The high cost of housing.

That’s an issue that reverberates not just in Portland, where the median price of a new home was $604,050 as of June 30—up 11.8% in a year—but everywhere.

Shiree Oliver of Local 3688 in the Twin Cities is more optimistic. She credits Gov. Tim Walz, DFL-Minn., who is an Education Minnesota (AFT/NEA) member and a former high school teacher, for that outlook. With labor’s backing, Walz seeks re-election this fall.

His one stumble, she said, was not strongly supporting the Minneapolis teachers whom the school board forced into a strike earlier this year, and particularly his failure to take $1 billion from the state’s surplus to aid the schools.

Raising wages for underpaid professional support staff and better counseling and mental health services for kids—and teachers—dealing with the pandemic’s closures and the George Floyd murder were key issues in that walkout.

“He (Walz) did a nice job” in fighting the virus and its rampages, Oliver said. “And the Republicans did us a favor by nominating an extreme rightist slate” to oppose Walz and his lieutenant governor. As for reluctant politicians in the split legislature, she adds: “Don’t come back to get your big fat check” without the money for the schools.

Outside the Twin Cities, however, is another matter, said one of her colleagues, a first-time convention delegate. “I live in Trumpville,” she said of a northern suburb. “We’re the only Democrats in town,” she says of the school teachers and staff.  So she doesn’t talk politics with her neighbors. They’re too reactionary.

One talk turned up a piece of voter repression, not in Minnesota, but in Texas—though a Minnesotan told it. It’s notable because, under tight Republican statewide control, Texas has enacted one of the most repressive voter regimes in the U.S.

Paul Madison of Local 34 in the Twin Cities said his brother, Bryant, Texas, city councilman Prentiss Madison, was term-limited so he decided to run for a Brazos County commissioner’s slot. Prentiss made the Democratic runoff, Paul said.

Between the primary date and the runoff weeks later, a polling place many of Bryant’s Black residents use was closed. When voters showed up for the runoff, it wasn’t there. “We don’t know how many went home,” Paul Madison said. His brother lost by four votes, 562-558.

That didn’t surprise Arthur Finley of Jacksonville, Fla. “Florida and Texas are twins” in their Republican-dominated politics, he says. Much is due to Republican gerrymandering.

But gerrymandering isn’t the sole problem. “I work as a poll watcher and have every election,” he noted. “We have early voting, but many Black and Latino people come in the day of the voting.” But in between elections, they moved, they may forget to change their addresses, and thus they’re barred from casting ballots. But repression hurts more than just voters of color, he said.

“I worked on the canvassers board. If they find three letters wrong” in a voter’s signature for a ballot, compared to the signature the voter used when registering, “they throw it out.

“This is all about power.”

Specific issues and candidates can move voters, though, as Susan Kusar, an AFSCME member from Sedona, Ariz., related. In her case—or rather her sisters’ case—it was abortion.

Just days before the union convention, the U.S. Supreme Court’s right-wing Republican-named majority decided, by a 5-4 margin, that there is no constitutional right to abortion, overthrowing the 49-year-old Roe v. Wade ruling.

That thunderclap has sent tens of thousands of people into the streets nationwide. It also got Kusar’s nine sisters—“all hard Republicans”—thinking, she said.

Kusar, the sole Democrat, didn’t have to change. “Now, with a woman’s right to choose” ended, “eight of the 10 of us are leaning for change.”

And a Laborers Local 332 member, at the convention to handle setting up and taking down its sets, screens, chairs, tables, and more, plumped for a candidate, but not for 2022.

The Pennsylvanian, who declined to give his name, likes Democratic senatorial nominee John Fetterman, who traipses around the state in a hoodie and shorts, campaigning even where Democrats, and unionists, are rare. Fetterman, he said, “talks straight.”

But he gave a wobbling “meh” motion with his hands when asked about gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro, the state’s Attorney General. “You don’t know what you’re getting.” Both Dems seek open seats, opposed by far-right Trumpite Republicans.

So who gets him excited? Phil Murphy, the Democratic governor of next-door New Jersey—for president in 2024, given incumbent Democratic President Joe Biden’s age.

“I’m impressed with Phil Murphy. He did a really good job in battling the pandemic—and he’s a stand-up guy,” the Local 332 member said.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.