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The Recall Campaign

Labor Presses Workers to Oppose Recall

Unions say phone banks have made 2 million calls and will campaign heavily till election day.

October 01, 2003|Megan Garvey and Matea Gold

Leo Valenzuela punched in a phone number, as he has thousands of times in the past 45 days, and found five minds that needed to be made up.

At the other end of the line was a union member, a longtime ironworker who told Valenzuela that he and the four other voters in his household were still struggling with the recall question a week before the election.

The ironworker said he and his family were struggling with whether Gov. Gray Davis should stay or go, and welcomed the call.

"He said to me: 'Well by God, you happened to call. Talk to me,' " said Valenzuela, secretary-treasurer of Laborers International Union, Local 585, who got to work trying to persuade yet another union member to keep the Democratic, union-friendly governor in office.

Davis' boosters in organized labor say they realize that if Tuesday's special election is to be turned in the governor's favor, they will have to do it a vote at a time, and already have spent $5 million on the effort. But they concede that it has been a tough sell, even given Davis' record on behalf of unions.

Davis strengthened prevailing wage laws, which are designed to prevent nonunion companies from winning contracts by underbidding unionized firms. He restored mandatory overtime pay after an eight-hour workday, which overturned a change in the law backed by former Gov. Pete Wilson that required overtime only after a workweek exceeded 40 hours. And Davis also has been credited with improving workplace safety standards.

The governor underscored his ties to organized workers Tuesday by visiting a labor phone bank near downtown Los Angeles. Accompanied by Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee Chairman, and Miguel Contreras, the Los Angeles County labor federation leader, Davis thanked workers busily calling voters to urge them to cast their ballots against the recall. The governor joined one call to chat briefly with a woman named Doris.

But Davis' personal unpopularity has led volunteers to steer clear of touting him. They talk instead about the dangers they see in the alternatives. Contreras said phone banks would call hundreds of thousands of union members over the next week to point out the potential risks posed by an Arnold Schwarzenegger victory.

"We pull it off with a big ground effort, a ground effort trying to expose to our union members who Schwarzenegger really is," Contreras said. "Union members are going to get the clear message from us that a union member voting for Arnold Schwarzenegger is like a chicken voting for Col. Sanders. It's against their best interests."

Schwarzenegger's campaign spokesman, Sean Walsh, called union efforts against the Republican front-runner dishonorable.

"Many of the labor leadership are very concerned that the membership is going in a different direction, and so in fear of losing them they have resorted to scare tactics," said Walsh, adding that Schwarzenegger declined contributions from unions because they are among the groups with which he would have to negotiate contracts if he became governor.

Schwarzenegger has labeled such groups special interests. At the same time, he has taken considerable money from developers in the state, who he argues fall into a different category.

Walsh said Schwarzenegger, if elected, "will negotiate with unions in good faith."

Union organizers say their workers' enthusiasm was dampened this week by new poll numbers indicating that Davis is still well short of the 50% vote he needs to keep his job. They have tried to keep spirits up by reminding volunteers that the grim picture does not reflect what they have heard in 2 million phone calls made to union members over the last seven weeks.

The abbreviated campaign has been one of organized labor's biggest statewide efforts, with record mass mailings, including 450,000 pieces sent Monday.

They plan a get-out-the-vote effort through election day. Rallies are scheduled around the state this weekend, and more than 80 phone banks remain up and running with hopes of contacting 1 million union households in the next week. The building trades and other unions have trained about 15,000 volunteers to work election day, making follow-up phone calls to make sure "no on the recall" members have voted. Volunteers also will be posted at closed polling places -- more than half of the usual locations in some of the state's largest counties -- to ferry confused voters to open polls.

"It's not over till it's over," said Bob Balgenorth, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

There is clear concern among organizers that it may not be enough.

So far, about 80% of union members reached in Los Angeles and other Democratic-leaning counties have said they are voting against the recall, Contreras said.

Still, he added, "We're doing a lot praying."

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