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Big Labor Has One Big Hope — and $385 million to Sell It

September 4, 2008
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The labor movement’s big-money campaign for Sen. Barack Obama faces stiff challenges in getting rank-and-file union members to overcome their concerns about the candidate, according to labor specialists and polls.

“There’s been a cultural and political divide between union members and Democratic candidates who may not care as much about trade and some other issues as they do,” said Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. “That makes it hard for union leaders to deliver the vote.”

This clearly worries union leaders, who see the November election as pivotal in getting key legislation passed. At the top of the list: the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would allow workers to organize via card checks rather than the usual secret ballots.

Obama endorsed the legislation, which passed the House before stalling in the Senate. Sen. John McCain opposed it. Last week, U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue said his group would lobby against the bill.

“All of labor’s eggs are placed in this legislation’s basket,” said Mike Asensio, a management labor lawyer for Baker Hostetler in Columbus, Ohio. “If they don’t get the bill passed, it raises a specter about their future.”

Given the stakes, it’s hardly surprising that organized labor is spending heavily on the election. The AFL-CIO and its 56 member unions plan to spend $300 million to support Democrats in the presidential and congressional campaigns this fall and produce about 250,000 volunteers. The breakaway Service Employees International Union plans to pitch in an additional $85 million.

To put that in perspective, the Democratic Party as a whole had raised $416 million through July.

The campaign at the AFL-CIO is typical of labor’s big-money strategy. The union will target 3 million undecided members, voting family members and retirees in 24 battleground states, said Karen Ackerman, the group’s political director. That target group consists of about a quarter of all union members.

The umbrella labor organization’s highest priorities will be voters in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania—swing states with large numbers of union members. It plans to spend as much as $18 million to reach undecided union voters and others in those three states with TV ads, fliers, phone calls, e-mails, mailings and one-on-one visits.

“Union members vote at a higher rate than the rest of the population,” said David Karol, a political science professor at U.C. Berkeley. “Many are basically Democratic who will end up coming around.”

Maybe.

But the largest block of undecided U.S. voters consists of older white, blue-collar, churchgoing men and women, according to a recent bipartisan poll of 1,000 registered voters conducted by Lake Research Partners and the Tarrance Group.

Blue-collar workers in Macomb County, Michigan, a Detroit suburb, favor McCain over Obama by a 51 percent-42 percent margin, according to a survey by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg that was released August 25.

The Michigan workers, many of whom voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, harbor doubts about Obama’s experience, values and patriotism, with lesser concerns about his race, the poll found.

“Many folks have never voted for an African-American,” Ackerman said. “It’s complicated by unfamiliarity, inexperience and rumors. Our job is to make sure people know who Barack Obama is and what he stands for.”

But earlier labor-funded ads seem to focus on what John McCain supposedly stands for. One flier about McCain’s proposal to privatize Social Security said: “McCain’s worth over $100 million. ... He owns 10 houses. ... He flies around on a $12.6 million corporate jet.... He walks around in $520 loafers. ... If John McCain lost his Social Security, he’d get by just fine. Would you?”

An online video showcases McCain’s houses and condominiums in Arizona, California and Virginia while also needling the Arizona senator about his calfskin loafers made by Salvatore Ferragamo. The video, distributed by the AFL-CIO and SEIU, then focuses on a person whose house was lost to foreclosure.

“Labor’s money provides them with the potential to make a significant impact in publicizing who Obama is, and it doesn’t really matter that it’s coming from the unions,” said Alan Gitelson, a political science professor at Loyola University of Chicago. “Political advertisements have an impact if they are repetitive.”

With the rolls of organized labor down nearly a quarter since 1979, union leaders will no doubt continue to hammer away.

Filed by Neil Roland of Financial Week, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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