New York’s voters give Kerry a twenty-point lead over Bush, rendering the state irrelevant to the last days of the presidential campaign. But New York City’s unions are working hard to help nearby swing states give their electoral votes to the Democrat. With nightly phone banks to Maine and Florida and weekly bus caravans to Pennsylvania, New York’s often fractious labor groups have found common cause.
On a bright Saturday ten days before the election, I leave my Brooklyn apartment at 7 a.m. to meet my union, the United Auto Workers, at New York City’s Central Labor Council. We’re headed to Pennsylvania, and the UAW delegation’s bus is full.
With no auto plants in the New York City metropolitan area, the UAW bus is made up of unionized clerical workers, car dealership staff, adjunct professors, graduate students, and legal aid attorneys and paralegals. It’s a sleepy crowd. Many were up late to watch and mourn the Yankees’ loss of the pennant to the Red Sox. The non-baseball fans among us are actually happy -- we associate a Red Sox win with the possibility of a Kerry win. We’re looking for any little talisman we can find.
But we’ve got more than superstition on our side. We’ve got a cause and a dedicated army. The relief of seeing a full busload is palpable among our organizers. And, after days of watching media professionals’ stupefyingly irrelevant commentary on Mary Cheney, many riders are happy to be focusing on the election’s impact on workers’ rights, benefits, and earnings.
A Kerry Administration would not be able to undo decades of losses to American labor. But a number of his promises will make a big difference. A pledge to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.00 would make some inroads into the increasing poverty rates; as we’re told on the bus, more than 70% of minimum wage workers are women. The rights to overtime that Bush has fought so hard to roll back would be upheld. Tax incentives to limit outsourcing and provide health care coverage would honor employers’ obligations to employ and protect American residents. Kerry supports card-check neutrality,! which would require employers to recognize unions if a majority of employees signed union membership cards, thus preventing the widespread employer intimidation that accompanies drawn-out election campaigns. Perhaps most important, a Kerry Administration would have the right to appoint three of the National Labor Relations Board’s 5 judges, paving the way for sensible decision-making about union rights to organize.
This issue is critical for our members, many of whom are newly organized academics. With ever-increasing teaching loads, graduate students and adjunct professors at private universities have struggled for years to be seen as employees just like their public university counterparts, who are covered by state labor laws rather than the federal National Labor Relations Act. In 2000, graduate students at NYU won a historic victory. Clinton’s NLRB saw clearly that they were employees who deserved the right to organize. But now they may lose everything. In July, litigation over a union election at Brown University resulted in the opposite outcome, courtesy of Bush’s NLRB appointees. Overturning precedent, they decided that because teaching assistants received tuition benefits in partial compensation for their labor, they were students, not employees with the right to join unions.
This decision reaches far beyond white-collar workers. As we’re driving down the New Jersey Turnpike, a UAW leader tells us that in September, the NLRB used the Brown University precedent to analyze the employee status of a group of disabled janitors receiving rehabilitation assistance from their employer. The Board decided 3-2 to deny the disabled men the right to organize.
We’re stunned for a moment, reminded yet again of how much we need a victory in this election. But we are entering the green valley landscape of Lehigh County, and our organizers begin to hand out buttons and stickers: “I’m labor and I vote.” “Fight! For America’s Working Families.” With more volunteers than expected, they’ve run out of UAW Volunteer/Kerry-Edwards t-shirts. Some of us get leftover sweatshop-free tees from earlier campaigns. Mine says “Union Yes!” I’m layering it on when the bus as the rusted-out remains of a large steel plant come into view.
We are in Bethlehem, center of a steel and manufacturing region that has lost 10,000 jobs during the Bush administration. Our bus caravan settles in outside the union hall, and a 40-ish man in a bright yellow United Steel Workers of America shirt boards our bus with a shout of excitement. He’s both cheerful and serious. After mocking us for finally losing to the Red Sox, he proceeds, to remind us why we’re there: John Kerry has pledged to make union organizing easier and union victories more meaningful; he’s promising to protect our pensions and improve our health care. Not only that, Lehigh Valley has voted with the winner in every presidential election for the last forty years. “But hey! No pressure!” he concludes. Armed with a fresh superstition to motivate us, we stream off the bus into the union hall.
Compared to many other organizing drives I’ve participated in, the steelworkers’ system is amazingly efficient. We fill up on the plentiful spread of coffee and donuts, then shuffle into another auditorium, where our group is given a quick, effective training by a physically small but vocally large local leader. Then we’re matched up in pairs or triples with drivers for the doorknocking. As the New Yorkers pile into cars, we see a busload of New Jersey communication workers coming in, part of the assembly line stream of volunteers for the day.
Three of us are assigned to a four-door pickup truck, the only union-made vehicle available by the time our driver, John, got to the car rental agency. John is in his early twenties, a Pittsburgh native with an open face and a soft spoken manner. He works as a researcher for the AFL-CIO -- his father worked for the steelworkers’ union for years. He’s arrived in the Lehigh Valley only two days prior, and we lose a little time navigating the confusing street system of the town we’re assigned to. But if John’s awareness of the streetscape is limited, his knowledge and thoughtful opinions about the campaigning and the demographic challenges to unions more than compensate.
John talks about the long-term decline of union influence and its effect on his generation, among whom union membership is rare. Unions represented almost 40% of the workforce after World War II; by 1980, their membership had declined by half, and the numbers keep falling. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union members made up 13.5% of the workforce in 2001; 13.3% in 2002; and a depressing 12.9% in 2003. And many of these members are government workers; only 8.5% of the private sector workforce are organized. As a result, blue-collar workers John’s age are less likely to link their own job prospects with union issues; thinking like labor has become less mainstream. But he encourages us to talk not just to members, but to families; union households made up 26% of the vote in 2000.
It’s a beautiful day, which means few people are home. We leave flyers in the doorways and make notations on our clipboards. But I see some signs of life at the third door I’m responsible for. The path leading up to the house is dotted with signs: Beware! Boo! Inflated ghosts and scarecrows cover the short lawn. Some large dogs start barking and jumping behind a porch wall, which actually does frighten me a bit. By the time I reach the porch the residents are already outside: “Can we help you?”
I start up my script. “I’m a union volunteer. We’re reaching out to members today about the presidential election, and we wanted to know where you…”
She doesn’t let me finish. “Kerry!” she says. “Our whole family.” The door to the porch opens and an older woman who I take to be her mother agrees, thumping her chest for emphasis.
“Great!” I say. “Your union completely supports your choice. And what’s the biggest issue for you?”
“Social security,” says Mom.
“Health care,” says Daughter. “My husband’s union just had to give up good health insurance for coverage that’s really terrible. The prescriptions are killing us.”
The statistics about uninsured Americans – 45 million, with at least 4 million of them added since the Bush Administration came to power -- don’t begin to get at the number whose health insurance has worsened, who pay increased co-payments and deductibles, whose unions have been forced to choose between risking mass layoffs and absorbing higher health care costs. Since 2001, 9 million fewer workers have employer-provided health insurance, and family premiums have increased by close to 50%.
Health care is an effective talking point. One of my teammates, a recently unionized adjunct from the New School, talks to a father washing his car outside. His young kids are playing near him. It turns out they’re his foster children, whom he’s hoping to adopt; his natural children are long grown and out of the house. He’s undecided, he says, because he’s so sick of watching both candidates tear each other apart. My teammate points out the “clear differences” between the two candidates on health care. Immediately the father confides that he’s come up against terrible obstacles obtaining appropriate care for his younger foster daughter. Kerry’s plan resonates with him; by the end of the conversation, he says he’s leaning.
It’s extremely gratifying to reach undecideds. We crave them. They exist. But for the most part people have made up their minds. One man stands outside his house, follows two of our teammates slightly down the street, asks where they’re going. They take it for a hostile question, but it turns out his is the house they’re looking for, and he can’t wait to talk to them.
“What issue is most important to you?” they ask.
“Getting Bush out!” he answers. It’s hard for him to choose just one of the many reasons he’s supporting Kerry, but he’s a postal worker, and he’s particularly concerned about Bush’s proposals to privatize the postal service.
Duly noted. We drive to farther reaches of the town, searching for the few voters whose preferences remain unidentified to the AFL-CIO. At times it doesn’t seem that an election is only days away. Instead, it’s Halloween that seems to preoccupy the region. Every street has a house or two decorated with orange plastic pumpkins and cardboard tombstones. I proffer the hypothesis that the more elaborate the Halloween paraphernalia, the more solid the support for Kerry-Edwards. My teammates quickly discredit the theory. Residents with Kerry-Edwards lawn signs seem to prefer them unobscured by pictures of witches.&nbs! p; And a couple of my teammates have uncovered Bush supporters at a home where the door is decorated with impressively crafted stuffed scarecrows and bats.
I get to speak to only one solid Bush voter, a young man whose union-member parents aren’t home. He tells me he “agree[s] with everything the President has done on Iraq.” We’re told to walk away from conversations like this, that it’s a waste of scarce resources to use the last days to argue with a strong Bush supporter. So I give him some flyers to pass along to his mother and father, and leave. But I can’t help but wish for a little more time to ask the young man what he thinks was done well in Iraq, if he thinks things could have gone better. I climb back into the pickup truck and we drive down the road to our next stop, where I encounter t! hat rarest of specimens: a Nader supporter.
I ring the doorbell a few times, and I’m about to give up, when a man in his early sixties, wearing a baseball cap, drives up to the house and parks. I ask him if he’s the member I’m looking for. He nods, then tells me he was prepared to vote Nader, but can’t, now that Nader’s off the ballot in Pennsylvania. We’re asked to treat Nader voters as undecideds, so I try to push a little, talking about Kerry’s plans to expand labor rights and stimulate job creation. He waves me off, not unkindly.
“Of course the Democrats are usually more for working people,” he says. “Really, I probably am voting for Kerry.”
We head back to the steelworkers’ hall for a boxed lunch. It’s another highly organized affair, complete with vegetarian options and cans of Yuengling, union beer. Some of us sit outside and compare notes. One UAW member brought her mother with her, and Mom happily reports that her group also found a persuadable Nader voter. Some of us share experiences of canvassing with other groups, like America Coming Together. A couple of us have tales of moderate Republicans whispering they’re likely to vote Kerry.
Others are more cautious. Having put in time with the UAW phone banks, we’ve encountered conservative teachers in Tampa who name “morality” as their central issue and support Bush. And we’ve tried to persuade worried ironworkers in Maine that their teenage sons are safer from the draft with Kerry and a competent commander-in-chief in the White House.
But overall, the mood is great. We take loads of group pictures before climbing on the bus back home. People are tired but also excited; they’ve spent a whole day with strangers who share the same passions and the same knowledge that what we’re fighting for really is important. It really does seem like we can win.
I think back to my Nader supporter, the one who ended up confessing he’d vote for Kerry. As I walked back to the pickup truck, he called out after me: “You have a hard job.”
I turned back. “Actually, it’s much easier than we expected,” I answered. “There really is a lot of support out here for change.” The man shook his head, but he couldn’t help smiling.
is a legal services attorney in New York City and a member of UAW Local
2320. She can be reached at: