Can Unions Stop Romney?

Labor started early this year. America’s most politically active union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), first deployed staffers to Ohio and key battleground states in March, says SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, with whom I spoke by phone on Saturday afternoon as she walked precincts in Cleveland. SEIU hasn’t confined its outreach to its roughly 30,000 Ohio members: 151 members from other states have taken off from their jobs to work fulltime in Ohio, 140 paid canvassers were hired for a joint project with another voter mobilization group, Progress Ohio, and roughly 2,300 SEIU members have volunteered to walk and phone this weekend and on Monday and Tuesday All these campaign workers are focusing not just on SEIU members but on the state’s African-American and Latino voters as well.

That focus reflects a high level of strategic coordination within what is still, formally, a divided labor movement. While SEIU has emphasized registering and mobilizing black and Latino voters, the AFL-CIO, from which SEIU disaffiliated in 2005, has made a massive push in Ohio’s white working class through its Working America program, which has signed up more than 1 million working-class Ohioans who don’t belong to unions to become members of its political action program. While Henry is door-knocking in a four-block stretch of Cleveland’s black community, AFL-CIO officials are canvassing the white working-class neighborhoods of Canton and Columbus. And both campaigns supplement the massive efforts of the Obama campaign itself.

“What struck me today,” said Henry, “was how many people brought up voter suppression, and how it impelled them to vote early.” Voters raised the topic at doorstep after doorstep; one woman told Henry that she had lined up early on the day early voting started, three weeks ago, precisely because the Republicans’ effort to suppress the vote had made her determined to cast the first vote in Cleveland for Obama. Every voter who answered his or her door on Saturday, Henry said, had either voted early or would vote today and tomorrow, with the exception of just one determined to vote on Election Day itself.

Henry hopes that SEIU’s efforts in this election result in the growth of a permanent progressive electoral infrastructure. A number of years ago, at the behest of union official Eliseo Medina, SEIU founded and funded Mi Familia Vota, a Latino voter registration and mobilization organization. This year, Mi Familia Vota, still chaired by Medina (now SEIU’s Secretary-Treasurer), is employing 550 full-time canvassers in such key states as Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and California. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Democrats pick up some House seats in inland California that are off the mainstream media’s radar, due chiefly to Mi Familia Vota’s efforts.) SEIU has not only funded the expanded efforts of Mi Famlia Vota this year but also those of the Black Civic Engagement Table, which is playing a similar role in key African American communities in swing states. “I think it’s important that we keep these organizations in place after the election,” Henry says, “that the Black Civic Engagement Table can become a permanent organization like Mi Familia Vota.”

Hurricane Sandy has compelled SEIU, and doubtless other unions and organizations as well, to reconfigure some of its final-weekend mobilization efforts: the busloads of SEIU volunteers scheduled to come from New York to Ohio couldn’t make it in Sandy’s wake. Volunteers from Illinois are being redirected into Ohio to fill the gap. A Romney presidency would surely move to suppress an already shrunken union movement—the Republican platform promises that—and America’s unions are doing all they can to ensure that presidency never happens.

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