Grass-Roots Organizing Tops TV Ads in AFL-CIO Political Agenda
By Thomas B. Edsall
Organized labor, having learned some tough lessons in the last election, is making changes this time, cutting way back on television spending and putting more emphasis on old-fashioned grass-roots organizing, including a lot of door knocking and telephone calling.
And the AFL-CIO will take on a modestly bipartisanship cast in 1998 by supporting a handful of Republican candidates sympathetic to labor.
Union leaders acknowledged that labor in 1996 failed in its principal goal of reversing the GOP's majority in the House, but they contended that 1996 witnessed the first substantial revival of what had been a politically moribund labor movement over the past two decades.
Their goal this year is to elect labor-friendly House members and in the process increase the strength of the union movement both as a political force and a bargaining agent.
"We will be focusing on issues rather than partisan politics because our members and the times demand it," federation president John J. Sweeney told the Democratic National Committee this month. "Instead of engaging in left-right politics, or even Democrat vs. Republican politics, we'll be concentrating on bottom vs. top politics."
The AFL-CIO will sharply boost cash and staff to register and turn out members of union households in target areas, channeling resources to a relatively small number of congressional districts 35 to 40 with highly competitive races, according to officials. The central labor organization plans to spend $28 million, substantially less than the $35 million labor poured into the 1996 campaigns.
The decision to endorse some GOP House candidates contrasts with 1996, when the AFL-CIO put money, manpower and ads into 102 House races, backing Democrats in every case. This year's GOP endorsements are designed to quiet some rank-and-file complaints that the labor federation had become an arm of the Democratic Party and to reward Republicans willing to back labor on fast-track trade legislation, the minimum wage and other measures.
"I think our main mistake in 1996 was making it too partisan. It was totally partisan; it shouldn't have been," said Gerald W. McEntee, chairman of the federation's political committee and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Democrats and Republicans both in unions and in the political parties decided "we were a vessel of the Democrats," he added. "It hurt in terms of . . . our own credibility to our base."
In an effort to address another major internal complaint that Washington officials dictated political decisions without adequate local input all endorsements will be initiated by county and state labor councils.
"That was the biggest beef we got," McEntee said. "The idea of 'Hey, who the hell are you. You made all these decisions'. . . . We should have had much more input from the people out there in the field."
The first stages in the selection of target 1998 races will begin today when union presidents and political directors present recommendations of state affiliates. The decision on districts, which will come later this year, will not be made public, AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal said, because candidates targeted for defeat would use it to raise money from conservative and business sources.
The $28 million AFL-CIO Labor '98 fund is being depleted by a commitment to put $7.5 million into the effort to defeat ballot initiatives in California, Nevada and Oregon that would severely restrict union political activities.
The bulk of the remaining money will be used to put 300 trained organizers into communities with key local races and where there are important House and Senate contests. These organizers will concentrate on mobilizing union members, obtaining telephone and address files, attempting to register voters and orchestrating visits, phone calls and direct mail to union households.
"The revolutionary notion of the new labor movement politics is that we are going to talk to our members," Rosenthal said. "What we find is that miraculously when we talk to union members, they vote our way."
Some target areas could have as few as one or two union political organizers. But others, such as Las Vegas, could have as many as 15 to 20. Half of the state's voters live in Las Vegas. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) faces a tough reelection fight, and there is an open-seat congressional race as well as four state Senate races that could determine which party controls that chamber.
Rosenthal contended that one of the major findings from the 1996 campaigns and the 1997 New Jersey gubernatorial contest is that the most effective use of union money is to concentrate on getting as many union members as possible to vote instead of on more expensive television advertising.
From 1994 to 1996, the percentage of voters from union households in the November electorate shot up from 14 percent to 24 percent, Rosenthal said. Put another way, only one out of seven votes in 1994 was cast by someone from a union household, while two years later nearly one out of four was from a union household.
The benefits of a union registration, persuasion and voter turnout drive are seen in the findings of a post-election survey of 1,700 New Jersey union members. Rosenthal said the poll showed that union members who had experienced minimal contact from their unions were 8 percentage points more supportive of the labor-backed gubernatorial candidate than those who had received no contact.
Among those union members "who got what we call the advanced program" workplace contact, extra mailings, phone calls support for the labor-endorsed candidate was 31 percentage points higher than for those who received no persuasion effort, Rosenthal said.
As a case study, union officials point to Ohio's 6th Congressional District, where Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland lost to Republican Frank Cremeans in 1994 by 3,402 votes, when only 18,626 union members, out of a total of 51,000, voted. Strickland won the seat back in 1996 by a 6,096-vote margin, when union turnout rose to 23,051 ballots.
The decision to play down television in favor of more traditional get-out-the-vote efforts is based in part on the belief that the 1998 elections will be determined by turnout of core voters rather than persuasion of independent, swing voters, many of whom go to the polls only in presidential election years.
In addition, labor in 1996 had an ideal target, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the House GOP's "Contract With America" and perceived threats to Medicare and Social Security that lent themselves to media campaigns. "The difference this time is, what are the issues?" McEntee said.
McEntee said that organized labor without polarizing figures such as Gingrich to give focus to an election and facing the prospect of television channels cluttered by issue ads on abortion, the environment and family values has already demonstrated the effectiveness of its 1998 strategy in helping elect Democrat Lois Capps in a California special House election earlier this year.
"We had grass-roots mobilization in the election," McEntee said, noting that all the media coverage was about abortion rights and antiabortion groups trying to influence the election. "We had our neighbor-to-neighbor program . . . but you never heard the labor movement mentioned. It was like a stealth campaign, but we played a major part in her winning through grass-roots mobilization."
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