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Element of Suspense 

Unions are shaken — and that may affect the vote

Thursday, Oct 20 2005
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The right’s operation for the November special election is taking shape. The California Republican Party has hired Gary Marx, an expert in getting the religious right to the polls, to gin up cultural conservatives’ turnout in what is sure to be a low-turnout election. They will come — so goes the theory — to support Proposition 73, which requires teens to obtain parental consent for abortions, and linger to vote for the four ballot measures that the party really cares about, the ones sponsored by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But what of it? The left’s operation in California is the stuff of legend, is it not? The army of union staffers and activists has transformed the state over the past decade by turning out the union-household and Latino voters in one election victory after another. In the seemingly snoozer of an election, the centerpiece of which is Proposition 75, a Schwarzenegger-backed measure that would greatly weaken public-sector unions’ ability to wage political campaigns, the union army should carry the day again — shouldn’t it?


Illustration by Mr. Fish

Well, perhaps. Certainly, the unions — chiefly, the California Teachers Association and the Service Employees International Union — have raised more money than God has, the bulk of which is going to a broadcast and mail campaign. But it’s the very program that labor does best, and which matters most in this kind of election — door-to-door voter mobilization — that is causing major nervousness among labor and Democratic operatives.

“No labor campaign really takes off until about four weeks out,” said one of the state’s leading Democrats in early October. “But the preparation work is not where it should be yet.” An L.A.-area elected official concurred: “The field is very slow and late.” Locals that should have been generating 100 volunteers for weekend calling and walking in early October were, by several reports, turning out just a fraction of that.

Labor has some genuine excuses for its tardiness, but excuses don’t win elections. In particular, it’s spent much of the last year splitting in two. And while the energy and synergies created by the new Change to Win Federation — the group of seven unions that left the AFL-CIO to form its own coalition — may unleash a new and overdue wave of organizing, the sundering of the AFL-CIO’s political operation may just prove calamitous in the approaching election.

As a rule of thumb in elections such as this, says national AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman, labor needs to turn out 70 percent of its members and persuade 70 percent of those voters to back its positions. That’s how California unions defeated Proposition 226, a measure similar to this year’s Prop. 75, in 1998.


Electoral politics may be more art than science, but the AFL-CIO has developed some distinctly successful formulas. Nothing works better in turning out the union vote than having a union member talk to union voters at their workplace or on their doorstep. But the Change to Win unions, which constituted nearly half of the AFL-CIO’s membership in California, have pulled the names, addresses and phone numbers of their members from the AFL-CIO’s consolidated lists, leaving behind a list so truncated that precinct walks targeting union members have become impracticable. Instead, union activists are contacting likely voters on lists assembled by this year’s ad hoc coalition, the Alliance for a Better California. The process will turn out votes, but not necessarily in the numbers or with the effectiveness of the old AFL-CIO program.

California’s largest union, the SEIU, with close to 600,000 members in state, has left the AFL-CIO, but boasts the most effective political program of any individual union; there’s little doubt it will wage a bang-up effort to turn out its own. But two other mega-unions that have left the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers — which combined have nearly a half million California members — have no operations on that scale, and previously had their turnout efforts run by the AFL-CIO. Whether their own efforts can transform themselves into effective get-out-the-vote machines is very much in question.

The other explanation for labor’s slowness in gearing up is the sudden death this spring of Miguel Contreras, under whose leadership the L.A. County Federation of Labor became the gold standard for voter-mobilization operations in the nation. Contreras’ successor, former L.A. City Councilman Martin Ludlow, is an accomplished electoral strategist — he served for a while as Contreras’ political director at the Fed — but he did not assume the position until mid-summer and has had to devote major chunks of his time to issues of staffing and secession. Inevitably and rightly, Ludlow has emerged as a leader in the inter-union and now inter-federation struggle to hold the local labor councils of the AFL-CIO together (the Change to Win unions want to keep up their membership, while the national AFL-CIO has been demanding they pay a surcharge to do so). On Wednesday, October 5, Ludlow convened a downtown rally of local union and elected leaders designed to inspire the attendees to commit greater resources to the election campaign. Then, he boarded a redeye to D.C., so he could make the case to the national AFL-CIO executive council the following day against tossing out local unions that had not paid the surcharge.

There’s little doubt that the public-sector unions directly affected by Prop. 75 will mobilize their own. The question is what the members of private-sector unions will do on November 8. One early October poll of AFL-CIO members showed them splitting evenly on the measure, 47 percent to 46 percent, when the measure was read to them. When it was more fully explained, 34 percent favored it and 57 percent were against. Proposition 75, after all, was crafted to sound like a union-democracy issue, requiring public-sector unions to obtain members’ written permission for political spending. In fact, such union members already have the right to withhold their dues for such purposes, and roughly 20 percent of unionized state workers do exactly that. The greater goal of the measure is simply to hamstring unions’ electoral endeavors and thereby remove the linchpin of the Democrats’ mobilization efforts.

Whether the unions can reach their own with this message is the biggest single question hanging over the November vote. “We need, as my husband said, [to raise ourselves to] the warrior level,” Maria Elena Durazo, head of the city’s hotel workers local and Contreras’ widow, told the labor and elected leaders at the October 5 rally. “Now is the time to act like warriors.”

We’ll see soon enough if they’re up to the challenge. “We’re running about four weeks behind where we were on [the campaign to defeat] 226 in putting together the field,” one labor leader told me at that rally. Inasmuch as 226 led, by ever smaller margins, in every pre-election poll and came up short only on Election Day itself, that’s making a lot of unionists — and Democrats and progressives — nervous.

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