Working America: Knocking on doors, changing politics

GAHANNA, Ohio — Before she started knocking on doors in this working class suburb of Columbus, Sara Rosenblum, a field director for Working America, explained: “We reach people where they’re at. We have substantive, truly back-and-forth conversations.

“People are eager to talk about issues that impact their lives,” she said, “especially working people who have few outlets to tell their stories.”

As a reporter for People’s World, I accompanied Sara as she canvassed.

She was right. Because she was clearly interested in hearing what they had to say, people were glad to engage in conversations about today’s issues. Most important, they seriously considered information that differed from the right wing pabulum they hear every day, all day on TV and radio.

“People instinctively know that what they see in ads or hear on the radio is not the whole story,” Sara said. “They just need an outlet for discussing their doubts.”

When canvassing, as people opened their doors, Sara told them that “we’d like to get your ideas about the future of Ohio. What is the most important issue to you?”

The first person to answer their doorbell, a mother with school-aged children, said “education.” She also said she was going to vote for Rob Portman, the right wing incumbent Republican senator backed by the Koch brothers.

Sara brought the conversation back to education. “Well, remember that when Strickland was governor he expanded the state university system to make college cheaper for everybody.” (Ted Strickland, a progressive Democrat, is challenging Portman.)

The woman’s face lit up in remembrance.

She said that in the presidential race she was leaning toward Trump, but after discussing the pros and cons of both candidates with Sara, she said she’ll keep an open mind.

Sara gave her information about Hillary Clinton, which she said she’ll read.

I bet she will.

This scenario was repeated at house after house.

When discussing Hillary Clinton, all Working America canvassers stress issues that resonate with workers: her plans to create jobs through rebuilding the infrastructure, her support for paid sick leave, for expansion of child health care programs and much more.

In fact, in all their conversations, Working America canvassers stress issues common to all workers.

“There are enough forces in this country trying to pit worker and against worker,” Michael J. Brewer, a spokesperson for Working America said. “We want to unite workers.”

For example, if someone brings up crime and safe streets, Working America canvassers will try to steer the discussion toward the need for jobs and better schools.

During our time canvassing here a young woman said that “immigration” was her top issue.

Sara started to discuss the fact that immigrants pose no threat to the number of jobs available in the U.S., but that the TPP and outsourcing do.

It turned out the young woman’s husband was Canadian and she was afraid if Trump is elected he might get deported. She definitely supports Hillary Clinton, she said.

There are about 40 Working America canvassers in the Columbus area at present and 150 across the country who are engaging people in discussions, according to Brewer.

There will soon be 500 canvassers spread across the battleground states. Since August, Brewer estimates that canvassers have reached about a quarter of a million people.

Here in Ohio, canvassers have been holding productive discussions with some people for over a year.

One homeowner we spoke to said she lost a good paying job eight months ago and although she is earning less on her new job, she always contributes what she can to support local Working America activities.

The AFL-CIO launched Working America in 2003 and is made up of some three million non-union members.

Its “front porch conversation” experiment was field tested last year and demonstrated that through “authentic engagement,” it is possible to introduce among Trump supporters the “countervailing pull” of a “progressive vision for the future.” Sometimes canvassers will return to the same home many times.

The key is to encourage Trump supporters to confront issues rather than focus on Trump’s personality or seeing the presidential race as anything more than entertainment.

During the canvassing here, it often took two or three statements of encouragement to get people to name the issue that most concerned them. The most frequently stated were education, taxes, healthcare and Social Security.

One person said voting rights was her top priority.

Working America’s canvassing program is currently directed toward November’s elections, but earlier this year canvassers helped people write detailed letters to their elected officials telling them about their concerns

In 2011, thanks in part to Working America canvassing, Ohioans voted by referendum to repeal a law that would have limited the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

“I love this work,” Rosenblum said. “We are connecting with people. We are helping to bring about systemic changes by working with one individual at a time.”

Photo: Working America canvasser.  | JJ Tiziou


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.