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Unions Mobilize to Get Out Vote

Labor: Campaign veterans say they have never seen the likes of the massive coordinated effort.


Union members were out in force Tuesday throughout the Southland, part of a massive, nationwide get-out-the-vote effort by organized labor that had electricians, janitors, nurses and cameramen admonishing fellow workers to get to the polls.

Painters' apprentices whipped around Burbank on Razor scooters, hanging slate cards on the doors of union voters. Immigrant drywall workers walked precincts in Venice. Teachers capped a day in the classroom with a few hours of phone calls.

In the final hours of balloting, hundreds of union members checked lists at polling places to see which of their targets had failed to show, then dashed over to their homes for one last nag.

Campaign veterans said they had never seen the likes of this effort, notable for the level of coordination between unions and the involvement of the rank and file.

"We've had unions come out that have never participated before, from the longshoremen in San Pedro to camera crews in Burbank," said Miguel Contreras, secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which ran a multi-union phone bank responsible for 50,000 calls. "Our members are starting to see a real connection between politics and collective bargaining at their places of work."

Building on recent electoral victories, labor activists are emphasizing the connection between the ballot box and the bargaining table--pointing out, for example, that labor-friendly state legislators were instrumental in pushing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to settle the Los Angeles bus drivers' strike.

State Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente), who is running for Congress, credited her early lead to union support, including the county federation, which had about 250 people walking precincts for her Tuesday. "It was the union that broke the barrier in my campaign," she said.

Nationwide, union members logged more than 8 million phone calls and handed out at least 12 million pieces of campaign literature. The national AFL-CIO had 2,000 full-time coordinators shepherding armies of volunteers who focused on fellow union members. Even in a normal election year, union households vote at a higher rate than the overall voting population, and organizers Tuesday said they expected turnout of targeted members at more than 75%. In a razor-thin election like this one, strategists said the union push could make the difference.

In Los Angeles, labor activists were focused on electing Democrats in three competitive congressional districts and in defeating two initiatives: the statewide school voucher proposal and Santa Monica's Proposition KK, which would block a coastal zone living wage. Those measures and the prospect of regaining a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives drew volunteers who had never participated in an election.

Some, such as Luis Marquez, could not even vote themselves. An immigrant from Mexico, Marquez walked precincts with the hotel workers union before starting his afternoon shift as a housekeeper at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. "We don't have a lot of money, but this is one thing we can do," said Marquez.

Others, egged on by the close presidential matchup, were drawn back into politics after years of complacency. They included Bob Styles, who stopped in at the electricians union hiring hall after an eight-month stint in Kosovo with the Army Reserves and signed up for a week of phone bank work.

"I volunteered for Carter in '76. That was heartfelt, but it wasn't through the union," Styles said. "This round, the union itself is more functional, and I'm seeing a lot more cooperation across union lines."

At a table littered with empty coffee cups and pizza boxes, Styles joined machinists, mail carriers, food workers and a teacher in making last-minute calls from a makeshift phone bank on the second floor. Downstairs, a camera operator, a motion picture costumer and a musician were cleaning up files for early morning precinct walkers. Runaway film production is his main issue, but cameraman Jeff Norvet said the problems faced by union members are universal.

"We're all working people," he said. "It boils down to this, a Republican Congress and Republican president would start rolling back everything we've come to take for granted."

In the Mid-City area of Los Angeles, union members joined community and religious groups over a different issue: immigration reform. Janitors and hotel workers spent Tuesday calling and knocking on the doors of immigrant voters, many of whom are voting for the first time. The Service Employees International Union alone placed 700 volunteers in the effort over the last four days, said union Vice President Eliseo Medina.

The coalition, called the Organization of Los Angeles Workers, has identified 36,000 immigrant voters in Los Angeles.

"Today we are going door to door to make sure every one of them votes," Medina said. "With a race this tight, we believe the immigrant vote could make the difference."

The service workers union formed a similar coalition, with churches and civil rights groups, to educate and mobilize African Americans. Those efforts are indicative of a sea change in the political activism of unions, which no longer simply turn over money and volunteers to candidates. Instead, unions are building their own campaigns, grilling candidates on such lunch-bucket issues as the minimum wage, overtime pay and union security, with the idea of holding elected officials to their promises.

"I've been around the labor movement 35 years, and I can tell you, campaigning used to be pretty dreary," said Paul Rosenstein, local political director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a Santa Monica city councilman. "You would just hand over a list and say, 'Here, vote for these people.' Now we give members information, and let them make the choice. Of course, we hope they come to the right conclusion."

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