Sue Wilson sat in the basement of an old art deco union hall in Cleveland this week, working a get-out-the-vote phone bank aimed at union members. It ought to be a snap.
There she was, in the heart of one of organized labor's sharpest political operations in a state where the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation, bread lines and fuel bills are growing, and the chill winds of winter are whipping in off the lakes.
And yet, she said with a shrug of exasperation, "I have no idea if our people are going to turn out to vote." Of course, many are angry about "the jobs thing," Wilson went on. "Angry and scared. But I don't know if that anger will be translated at the polls." National surveys show that many union voters who deserted Jimmy Carter for Ronald Reagan in 1980 are abandoning this president in turn. The labor movement, after several years' estrangement from the Democratic Party and Carter, is politically reenergized and more partisan Democratic than ever in reaction to President Reagan's policies.
Labor money, manpower -- and votes -- are critical factors in many House races and are key to the number of seats the Democrats pick up this year.
Union officials down the line reflect Wilson's frustration and apprehension, however. Even in hard-hit Michigan, United Auto Workers officials are shaking their heads over their members' apathy and lack of anger and wondering about their turnout.
And labor is often split. In New Jersey, public employes and other liberal unions are opposing Republican House incumbent Harold C. Hollenbeck, who was endorsed by the AFL-CIO and the more conservative unions.
Labor officials get more cheer from their fund-raising, however. While they will be outspent by corporate and professional political action committees (PACs) by about 4 to 1, the major unions and their PACs report sharp increases in their political contributions, thanks to hard times and a new check-off procedure that makes it easier to raise money.
Thus, labor's expenditures are expected to well exceed the $14 million they contributed in the 1979-80 election cycle, with about 90 percent going to Democratic candidates.
Labor leaders are putting the screws to candidates who seek their help, insisting on their support on such issues as opposing the balanced-budget amendment and voting for a controversial bill that would require a certain proportion of foreign autos to be built in the United States.
But even though the unemployment rate just went over 10 percent, the big question on the minds of labor leaders and labor candidates is whether potential union votes will "come home" to the Democrats on Election Day Nov. 2 or simply stay home.
A lethargy born of despair among the jobless, a belief that Democrats lack a clear alternative, disgust with all politicians -- these are the dampening influences evident in talks with working people.
This week, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and dozens of other top labor leaders and candidates, in an effort to pierce voter apathy, turned up at plant gates from Baltimore to Klamath Falls, Ore., urging the rank-and-file to get out and vote against those who support the president's economic policies.
Some unions have been registering voters as they stood in unemployment, welfare and food-stamp lines in targeted congressional districts.
To Kirkland and other labor leaders, however, the fall campaigns represent much more than an immediate chance to build a friendlier coalition in Congress and send a message against Reaganomics. For their grass-roots brigades, they see it as a dress rehearsal for 1984.
It is not until the presidential sweepstakes that they expect the full impact of labor's retooled political machinery to make itself felt.
To see a model of what labor has in mind for the country tomorrow, they say, visit Ohio today. Labor's approach in this middle-American swing state relies neither on hoary myths nor on ideological pitches, according to Warren Smith, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO and a chief architect of the political machinery. It concentrates on basic mechanics and fine-tuning.
"A lot of people will tell you about how labor used to go in and walk the precincts on Election Day," said Smith. "Well, I've been in tough fights over a period of 25 years, and labor never did it. That's b --- s ---."
"But," he added, "we really do it" now.
Another myth he debunks is the one about "volunteers" turning out to work on Election Day. "Volunteers don't show up. Then you've got all these expensive computer lists, this fine tool, down the tubes. All these people are paid."
The heart of the operation is the computerized list of union members with addresses and phone numbers and voting history, compiled and gradually improved by the labor federation in Washington over the last 15 years. It was dicey, Smith said, getting various unions to share their membership lists, and some still won't.
The Ohio operation fielded 3,000 troops on Election Day in 1980 and hopes to do at least as well this year. Armed with their "walking lists," they will concentrate on knocking on doors in only about 2,000 to 3,000 of the state's 13,000 precincts -- 800 in vote-rich Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) alone -- in their concentration on tight races and on Democratic union voters with a poor turnout record.
"We know we can increase voter participation in a given precinct by 22 to 24 percent," Smith said. "We know we can produce 80,000 to 100,000 more votes on Election Day statewide out of maybe 2.7 million cast."
Recent key state races -- for governor and for the Senate -- have been decided by smaller margins, he said.
Economic ills have already helped some Ohio Democrats this year.
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum and gubernatorial candidate Richard Celeste have pulled ahead in the polls. And a labor-backed candidate knocked off pro-Reagan Democratic Rep. Ron Mottl in the primary.
But in House races, for various reasons, Democrats and Republicans are expected to break even unless there is a dramatic last-minute tilt.
In Youngstown, with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, the Republican incumbent is expected to be reelected. In the Democratic industrial center of Toledo, where the unemployment rate is 12.2 percent, union-supported Marcy Kaptur is battling uphill against pro-Reagan Republican Ed Weber.
Nationally, the AFL-CIO's political arm, COPE (Committee on Political Education), has endorsed almost exclusively Democratic candidates, giving aid to only six GOP House candidates and one GOP senator, John Heinz of Pennsylvania. COPE made no endorsement in the Connecticut Senate race between two friends of labor -- Republican incumbent Lowell P. Weicker Jr. and Democrat Rep. Toby Moffett.
In Senate races, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Harrison H. Schmitt of New Mexico are among labor's top targets for defeat.