When Barack Obama collected the endorsement on Wednesday of
Nevada’s Culinary Workers aren’t alone among unions in wanting more from campaign season than empty promises. The precipitous decline of union membership in the United States--from almost 12 million unionized private-sector workers in the 80s to less than 8 million in 2006--means that the labor movement can no longer afford to plunge endless resources into political campaigns without some guaranteed return. In a dramatic shift from its traditional practices, Big Labor has a new strategy this campaign season that focuses less on propelling their favorite candidates to victory and more on using election-time voter mobilization to build membership and draw attention to unions’ own key contract fights. This year will be a critical test of whether those new strategies can help win elections and provide a much-needed blood transfusion to America’s unions.
Labor endorsements have long been prized by politicians because union members frequently vote as a bloc--three-quarters of the approximately 12 million union voters who turned out in the 2006 Congressional elections pulled the lever for Democrats--and their members often have prior political experience, making them excellent volunteers. Unions also have significant amounts of money to give to candidates and to spend on independent efforts to sway voters. The AFL-CIO, America’s largest union federation representing 10 million workers, spent $40 million on the 2006 elections and has pledged that it and its 55 member unions will spend $200 million on the 2008 cycle, more than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton combined raised through the third quarter of last year.
That support comes with a price: Once in office, union-backed candidates are expected to pursue a broad economic agenda that includes increasing the minimum wage, making it easier to form unions, inserting labor protections in trade deals, and reforming working conditions.
But recent experience has made unions wary of staking their political credibility on endorsements. In 2004, despite blowing away the rest of the Democratic field with his number of union endorsements, then-Representative Dick Gephardt sputtered to a fourth-place finish in
Even when union-backed candidates make it into office, there’s no guarantee that they will deliver for the unions who supported them. Take Senator Sherrod Brown of
In the wake of these expensive disappointments, seven unions, including SEIU, split from the AFL-CIO, taking six million members with them to a new labor federation, Change to Win. The break-up was prompted in part by a dispute over priorities: Unions who left the AFL-CIO wanted to spend money on efforts to grow union membership rather than political campaigns that they believed offered little return.
Unions’ membership crisis has forced them to reorient their political efforts toward bolstering their numbers--resulting in a drastic change in how they engage with political campaigns. Last year, the AFL-CIO used
The federation achieved both of its goals: Seventy-seven percent of union voters cast their ballots for the Democrat, union supporter Steve Beshear, and the nurses won a new contract. Even if their investment in Beshear fails to pay off, the election still offered tangible benefits to the federation.
The unions in Change to Win, such as SEIU, are also adopting growth-oriented campaign strategies. SEIU, for example, which represents 1.9 million health and child care workers, janitors and security guards nationwide, is part of a coalition that in 2007 helped more than a million eligible immigrants apply for citizenship--with the goal that they will also become 2008 voters. Adding a million Latino voters to the electorate could help swing key races towards Democrats in districts where Republicans have staked out hard lines on immigration. But perhaps more important for SEIU is that those new citizens are also potential new members.
Even in campaigns where unions do make campaign contributions and endorsements or provide volunteers, the labor movement is expecting its candidates to get intimately involved in union fights. SEIU set up a program called Walk a Day in My Shoes to have candidates spend a day on the job with union members--harnessing the campaign press to further their own initiatives--yielding pictures of Obama serving a meal to a home-bound patient in
Of course, even if union-backed candidates do win their races, and Democrats take over all of
Alyssa Rosenberg is a staff correspondent at Government Executive.
By Alyssa Rosenberg