FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Charles Wells started his day before sunrise along with other union organizers at a local Waffle House, yet showed no signs of flagging at 7 p.m. as he spoke to fellow labor officials about the stakes in the congressional and presidential elections.
"There is no more critical time in our lifetime for us as representatives of working men and women, who need to make their voices heard," boomed Wells, the otherwise mild-mannered executive director of Kentucky's American Federation of Teachers.
Wells and his colleagues are on the front lines in the battle for control of the House. Their particular goal: helping a Democrat win back his congressional seat here in Kentucky's 6th District from a Republican -- one of three Kentucky races that could help decide who controls the House next year.
Lexington isn't a big union town, but the extensive network the AFL-CIO has established here and in other congressional districts nationwide demonstrates how labor forms the backbone of the Democrats' grass-roots operation this election. Last week, 500 activists -- 100 more than last year -- gathered in Washington for a training session before fanning out across the country.
"Labor 2000," the AFL-CIO's most comprehensive get-out-the vote effort, is crucial to Democratic hopes of regaining the House majority. It also marks a strategic shift by union leaders, who are focusing less on blanketing the airwaves and more on mobilizing members and their neighbors to vote.
"It's a cultural change within the labor movement," said Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's political director. "Over the years, our organization had gotten rusty. What's more critical is that people talk to each other."
The stakes for unions are enormous: They risk being shut out of both the White House and Congress for the first time in nearly half a century. Officials won't say exactly how much money labor will spend on this year's elections, but the estimate is $40 million for the AFL-CIO's 1999-2000 political and legislative budget, which includes everything from the fight against trade with China to state legislative contests and individual ballot initiatives.
After analyzing the 1998 election results and conducting focus groups, union officials found that member-to-member contact was key in getting out the vote. For example, 76 percent of union members who received workplace fliers voted for the labor-endorsed candidate, but in 1998 only 11 percent of union members received such leaflets.
Targeting 71 House races, the AFL-CIO has created what amounts to a series of ever-expanding pyramids. Its 68 member unions select "point people" in every state, who in turn target members in their locals. This group finds point people in every unionized shop, who subsequently identify point people for each work shift. Rosenthal estimated this translates into "literally thousands of activists."
Rutgers University economics professor Leo Troy, a union critic, said unions are an invaluable asset to the Democrats, providing the kind of grass-roots support amounting to "a hand-wrapped gift" that he estimated is worth hundreds of millions of dollars each election.
"How would you buy 45,000 organizations across the country devoted to your cause?" Troy asked.
Union members consistently vote in higher numbers than their nonunion counterparts, providing the winning edge for Democrats in key races.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., noted that labor made up just 13 percent of the electorate in 1994, when his party lost 52 seats, while Democrats gained seats in the last two elections, when union members accounted for 23 percent of the vote.
"Any organization that has a grass-roots operation can be effective in an election," Gephardt said. "The unions have been very effective in recent years."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.