When union members give him grief about Democrats being soft on the Second Amendment, Bill Dorward, an organizer for the United Steelworkers of America, fires back: "If you lose your job, you can't eat your gun."
Dorward has not had to give that response much this election season. Three years of job losses and other economic setbacks have stoked political passions among union-represented workers, and leaders of the nation's largest labor organizations are forecasting a record turnout among members and their families.
"People are fed up with the economy," Dorward said. He also said members have been alarmed at how quickly jobs, health care and the stock market, which affects many pension plans, have eroded during President Bush's term. "This is the worst president in the history of the United States, and people are starting to realize it."
Since rallying behind John F. Kerry after the Massachusetts senator took the lead in the Democratic primaries last winter, labor unions have committed huge amounts of money and legions of foot soldiers to help him defeat Bush. Much of the focus has been in midwestern battleground states, where industrial unions boast large memberships.
The AFL-CIO is aiming this year to exceed the 27 million union household voters who cast ballots in 2000, when Democrat Al Gore got more than 60 percent of the labor vote.
"There is enormous unity among union members about the importance of this election . . . a sense of urgency we haven't seen before," said Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO.
The AFL-CIO is spending $45 million in 16 battleground states, where the organization has helped local unions set up phone banks, canvass door to door, and print and distribute literature at job sites. The labor coalition has nearly 5,000 members working full time on voter mobilization, three times as many as in 2000.
On Saturday, groups of union members will go door to door in six cities and cover battlegrounds from Florida to Nevada.
The Service Employees International Union is spending $65 million on mobilizing union households, including $40 million to cover the salaries of more than 2,000 members who took leaves from their regular jobs to spend much of the year in battleground states, union spokesman T.J. Michels said.
Chuck Rocha, national political director for the Steelworkers, said he has never seen union members so energized over an election. "We have more of our members actively working to defeat George Bush than we've ever had involved in any election cycle," he said. Four years ago, the union had about 100 activists in 10 states, Rocha said, compared with 500 in eight states this year.
The Steelworkers are most intensely focused on Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire, he said. They are also making a big push in West Virginia, where Rocha said the ticket has been a tougher sell. In 2000, Bush won the state by 6 percentage points and was the first GOP presidential candidate to carry West Virginia since Ronald Reagan was reelected in a landslide in 1984. Bush appealed to the state's conservative values, and the National Rifle Association convinced gun owners that Gore would restrict their right to own guns.
Doug Gibson, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said the union has tried to address West Virginia members' concerns about the right to bear arms. "We have been reminding people that the president cannot just freely amend the Constitution without the support of the Congress," said Gibson, who said this year members appear to be more anxious about health care, the economy and the war in Iraq.
West Virginia is home to about a quarter of the union's 110,000 members nationwide. Gibson said Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, have spent more time courting UMW members than the 2000 Democratic ticket did, vowing to protect the health care benefits promised members by the federal government. "Gore did not even visit West Virginia until September," he said. "We believe West Virginia is still very much in play. . . . Our members are committed to working 24/7 up until November 2 to see that Kerry and Edwards are elected."
In addition to West Virginia, which polls indicate may be out of reach, Gibson said the union seeks to make an impact in New Mexico, where it has 1,500 members, many of them Navajo coal miners. In 2000, Gore won New Mexico by 366 votes.
In Wisconsin, John Goldstein, president of the Milwaukee Labor Council, said the goal is to drive up turnout in the metropolitan area to offset Bush's support in other parts of the state. In 2000, Gore won Wisconsin by approximately 6,000 votes; he had an 80,000-vote margin in Milwaukee. "The burden is on us to make sure that Kerry carries our state. We have to generate a huge turnout in Milwaukee County," Goldstein said.
Goldstein said the county has about 100,000 union households, and since December, the council has been visiting, calling and leafleting them with information. "We're walking every day. We've got about 45 phone lines going from 9 in the morning until 9 at night every day," he said. Particular attention has been given to the 25 percent of members who are swing voters, he added.
Kurt Bateman, who runs the community action program of the United Auto Workers in Franklin County, Ohio, said he tries to avoid debates with members over social issues because "it gets too emotional, and it's hard to have a logical discussion."
Instead, he focuses on the 250,000 jobs lost in the state over the past three years, the thousands of families who have lost health care or have seen their insurance premiums increase, and what he says has been the administration's hostile attitude toward unions.
The county of just over 1 million people encompassing Columbus went to Bill Clinton twice, but backed Bush in 2000.
Statewide, Ohio has about 1 million union households. "I would guess we'll have 65 to 70 percent of our members will vote the way we're endorsing," Bateman said.
Jonathan Nagler, a professor of politics at New York University and an expert on voter turnout and unions, said union voters this year will be less distracted by social values.
"In 2000, you had a hard time defining the issues, but this year it's pretty clear what's on the table: the economy and this crazy mix of terrorism and Iraq. I think values is running a distant third to security and the economy," he said. "For whatever reason, George Bush has convinced a lot of people that he's going to be better on security than John Kerry. So, if anything gets some union members voting for Bush, it will be that."
That was the reason the husky man with the thinning hair gave to George Ehret, who, along with fellow Steelworkers, was canvassing union households in Bethlehem last weekend.
"I'm a registered Democrat, but I'm voting for Bush. I like what he's doing with the war," the man said as he stood in the doorway of his home in a middle-class neighborhood.
"Everybody seems to be hung up about this war," Ehret said, as he walked away. "To me, it's the debt, that's more of a problem for the country. Prescription drugs, health care, those are bigger issues."
Jerry Green, president of Steelworkers Local 2599, started the campaign season in January with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). He worked for Gore in 2000 but said, "I've really stepped it up this time. I think Al Gore got the election stolen from him, and I've seen how we've suffered here in the Lehigh Valley with the loss of jobs."
Green, 49, retired from Bethlehem Steel after his plant closed four years ago. When the company filed for bankruptcy last year, pensions for 11,000 retirees had to be taken over by a federal pension board. His benefits have been cut by $700 a month. "I lost my health care, as well," he said.
"That's what personally motivates me," Green said. "We've had enough of this administration."