Labor Unions Face "Enthusiasm Challenge"
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Aaron Jones has heard the frustrations as he goes door-to-door among union households — the economy remains poor; issues important to workers are stalled in Congress; Republicans seem more energized this election.
Put mildly: "There is an enthusiasm challenge," said Jones, the leader of a five-person voter canvassing crew for a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union.
With a growing sense of urgency, labor unions are deploying tens of thousands of activists nationwide in an attempt to counteract the malaise in the rank and file and prevent Democrats from losing their congressional majorities in the middle of President Barack Obama's term.
Unions expect to spend about $100 million in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 election, targeting nearly 100 House races, 18 Senate seats 14 gubernatorial races. Between campaign walks, door knocks, mailings, phone calls and work site leafleting, union officials already have contacted about half of their approximately 17.5 million members nationwide.
But for the first time in many election seasons, the results of the effort are uncertain. The ambivalence — or even opposition — among some workers has Democratic candidates worried. The disaffection of middle class men, who represent a large part of the union workforce, is a major reason that Democrats are braced for potentially serious losses nationwide.
Union households have long been a staple for Democrats. In 2008, Obama drew support from nearly 60 percent of union households compared with a little over 50 percent of the overall electorate, according to an exit poll conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and television networks.
But workers have not reaped all the rewards they expected. Unemployment remains above 9.5 percent. States have been slicing public employee pensions and laying off unionized workers to compensate for declining tax revenues. And, despite Democratic control, Congress has been unable to pass legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize workers.
"I voted for Barack Obama. I believe in Democratic ideals, but he is a big disappointment so far, mostly because he hasn't been able to do anything to help the economy," said James McQuillen, 53, a retired United Auto Workers union member who lives near Detroit.
McQuillen still plans to support Democrats this year, but he says other union retirees he talks with are looking at Republican candidates. One recent poll in Michigan showed Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder leading Democrat Virg Bernero among union members.
And there are various other signs of unease among union members. The typically routine endorsement of Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, of Minnesota, by a United Steelworkers local resulted in a closer vote than expected this year. In Pennsylvania, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Pat Toomey won the endorsement of a police union over Democrat Joe Sestak.
"A lot of people are mad, upset," said George Tucker, executive secretary of the greater northwest Ohio AFL-CIO in Toledo. "They thought, 'You let your team in and everything changes overnight.'"
For Tucker and other union campaigners, the first task often is to persuade union members that Democrats are doing all they can to help them. The second task then is to motivate them to vote. In many places, union activists are focusing more intensely than ever on making face-to-face contact with other union members.
"Sometimes you have to remind people that, 'Hey, Jesus Christ couldn't do anything more than President Obama has on the agenda we supported two years ago without the United States Senate having the votes for cloture to overcome a filibuster" by Republicans, said Herb Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO.
In some states, union members have extra motivation because of a sense that their jobs may be at stake.
Public employee unions have been a favorite target in California this election season, primarily because of the drain their pension plans place on the state budget. Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has said she would try to implement 401k-style accounts for all but public safety workers if elected next month.
California unions already have spent millions of dollars in support of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown.
"Public employees and unionized employees feel this is our last stake in holding our ground," said Irwin Lum, president of Transport Workers Union Local 250-A in San Francisco.
In Illinois, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady has criticized public employee pension benefits, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees has endorsed Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and struck a deal with him for a delay in any jobs cuts if he is elected.
Jones, who leads the SEIU canvassing team in Kansas City, said labor leaders in Missouri have been able to revive enthusiasm partly by emphasizing the threat of government employee layoffs if a statewide ballot measure on taxes in Kansas City and St. Louis is approved.
"We haven't had the enthusiasm on our side like we had in 2008," Jones said. But the ballot measure "has provided our base a talking point that gets them excited, that makes it a little bit easier for us talking at the doors."
Hananel reported from Washington, D.C. Associated Press writers Kathy Barks Hoffman in Lansing, Mich., John O'Connor in Springfield, Ill., and Tom Verdin in Sacramento, Calif., also contributed to this report.