WASHINGTON—While much of the Democratic Party has pinned its strategy in this year’s campaigns on appealing to suburban women disgusted with Donald Trump’s piggishness, two major American unions are going after demographic groups that vote infrequently in midterm elections.
The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees says it has contacted 1.5 million black and Latino men under 35 through social media. The Communications Workers of America are combining intensive organizer training, new texting technologies, and old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing in states that went for Trump in 2016, including Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio.
“The energy we’re seeing is higher than in 2016,” says Grant Welch, legislative chair of CWA Local 3611 in Raleigh, N.C., speaking to LaborPress from Greensboro, where he’s been canvassing union members. In 2016, he says, “a lot of them voted not really knowing what would happen,” but now, they’re telling him, “This is a corporate-controlled administration. They’re not looking out for the worker.”
This is a corporate-controlled administration. They’re not looking out for the worker. – Grant Welch, CWA Local 3611
The CWA, says national political director Rafael Navar, has put 300 to 400 members through a six-week organizer-training program that includes going out canvassing with mentors and a “consciousness-raising ideological training that goes past this election.”
This election, they’re trying to reach their own members, other union members, and the general public. In the long run, Navar explains, the goal is to build enough worker power to reverse the labor movement’s 40-year decline, and counter both Trump and corporate Democrats. The issues that resonate with voters vary from state to state, but the unifying theme is that “corporate power is greater than ever, and they’re driving an agenda that’s harmful to the majority.”
In Colorado, Navar says, voters are angry about the 2017 tax-cut bill: Independents, who are typically white and upper-working to middle class, got only small reductions, and they’re now seeing congressional Republicans using the expanded federal deficit to advocate cutting Social Security and Medicare. Health care, such as the idea of extending Medicare to everyone, and education, are also widespread concerns.
“On the ground, it is about the issues,” says Yolanda Bejarano, state coordinator for CWA Local 7019 in Phoenix. “We ask, ‘what’s important to you?’”
What has worked, she says, is “talking about the amount of money spent buying elections.” For example, the Arizona Public Service Co. utility is buying incessant ads against Proposition 127, a ballot initiative that would require half the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030.
The union’s canvassers have found voters over 50 most receptive. “It’s made me really amazed how people are willing to open their doors to us,” Bejarano says. “A lot of houses are full of people, because they can’t afford to live on their own.” There have been occasional hostile interactions, but on the whole, “we’ve had more good ones than bad ones.”
“We’re getting a sense of frustration with not only the process, but the system,” says AFSCME assistant political director Kenny Diggs, speaking from Ohio, where the union has endorsed Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray. Young men want to be able to live on their own two feet, he explains, but getting a decent job, health care, and an education are huge barriers.
The union is using social media almost exclusively to try to reach black and Latino men aged 18 to 34, Diggs says, because they are much more likely to be found online than at home. This aspect is technically nonpartisan, he explains. AFSCME, working with the NAACP and local churches, is trying to bring younger people into the political process through “relational organizing.”
“It doesn’t have to be divisive. It doesn’t have to be confrontational,” he says.
The first step on the “organizing ladder,” he continues, is getting people to figure out what issues are important to them. After that come looking up candidates’ stances and records on those issues, sharing that information with family and friends, and then getting involved with actual organizing. After the election, he adds, it’s important for them to have some interaction with the winner to talk about those issues and ask what they’re going to do.
“Young folks are not interested in waiting two or three terms for something to happen,” Diggs says.
New technologies are an important tool. Both unions are using Hustle, a peer-to-peer texting app, and AFSCME is using Avalanche, a program a spokesperson describes as a combination of digital polling and focus groups. CWA canvassers in Arizona have an app on their phone that can tell them when the person they’re about to visit last voted and where their precinct is, says Bejarano.
But technology is a tool, not a panacea. The biggest issue “is just getting the word out,” says Welch.
In North Carolina, the CWA is backing three Democrats running for Republican-held House seats, including Kathy Manning in the 13th District, Greensboro and the rural areas to its south. It’s also endorsed state Supreme Court candidate Anita Earls, a civil-rights lawyer who won the cases striking down the state’s 2011 legislative redistricting as a racial gerrymander and its 2013 law requiring voters to have photo identification, which a federal appeals court held targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
Two proposed constitutional amendments on the state ballot have also provoked voters, says Welch. One would require photo identification for in-person voting, but doesn’t say what kinds of ID would qualify. Another would lower the maximum state income-tax rate from 10% to 7%. That would prevent the state from repealing the 2014 tax cuts on income over $100,000, and Welch says it would likely lead to cuts in funding for schools and impair the state’s ability to respond to recessions and natural disasters.
“We can call it class warfare. Their side is winning,” he says. “This is how we change it, by electing labor-backed candidates.”
Next election, says Bejarano, she wants to “start canvassing in January.”