Union leaders are running a massive on-the-ground effort to defeat President Bush in swing states -- a push that could prove crucial as the race for the White House boils down to competing drives to turn out voters.
The initiative builds on the same member-to-member outreach that boosted the union share of the total U.S. vote to 26% four years ago from 19% in 1996, according to union-sponsored exit polls. That shift helped the Democrats take some difficult states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan.
This time, Republicans are countering with their own intensive door-to-door operations, making labor's contribution even more important.
Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry "simply cannot win without a well-funded and well-executed persuasion and turnout program by organized labor," said Jim Jordan, a veteran political strategist who is working with the Democratic Party. "The good news is that's exactly what labor is delivering."
Longshore workers, who tangled with the Bush administration during the 2002 West Coast port lockout, are walking precincts in landlocked Las Vegas. Members of the United Auto Workers, whose organizing tactics are being challenged by Bush appointees on the National Labor Relations Board, are stirring up fellow union members in depressed Midwestern factory towns.
Janitors with the aggressive Service Employees International Union are riding buses from Los Angeles to Arizona and from New York to Florida, targeting Latino voters. Meanwhile, the political bellwether state of Ohio is teeming with union electricians, steelworkers, phone technicians and other volunteers from neighboring states.
"I've been with the [International Brotherhood of] Teamsters for 20 years and this is by far the most incredible operation I've ever seen," said Chuck Harple, political director for the union that once raised eyebrows by cultivating a relationship with President Bush. Now caravans of Teamsters' semis are rolling through the Midwest, stopping every few hours at union factories for boisterous rallies in support of Bush's opponent.
Clearly, not all union members follow the cue of their leaders. Four years ago, despite organized labor's strong backing for then-Vice President Al Gore, 32% of the union vote went to Bush while 63% went to the Democratic candidate.
This year, several union political directors and field organizers said, internal polls point to stronger member support for Kerry, approaching 70%.
"We're finding that gun control, abortion, gay marriage, those social issues are not the wedge issues they were in 2000," said Ethan Rome, public affairs director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the nation's most politically active unions. "This year, our members are more likely to vote their job and not their hobby."
Bush campaign spokesman Reed Dickens said the president had his own army of volunteers, more than 1 million of whom have pledged to walk precincts and make phone calls on his behalf.
"They're all motivated out of love for the president," Dickens said. "We'll take our volunteer base over their volunteer base any day."
Kerry wasn't the first choice for most unions, which split during the primaries between longtime ally Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and firebrand former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. But they came together to back him with their most intense and strategic effort ever, driven largely by animus toward the Bush administration.
"George W. Bush has done everything he can to put us down and keep us on the bottom," said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, whose federation represents 63 national unions with 13 million members. Despite efforts by Sweeney and others to rebuild membership, labor's share of the workforce has declined steadily in recent years and is below 13%.
Sweeney has fought the Bush administration on ergonomic safety rules, overtime pay, the privatization of union government jobs and a series of other initiatives -- losing every time.
"It has just been horrible, and workers understand that," he said. "I don't even want to think about what another four years would be like."
Spokesmen for the White House and the Labor Department disputed Sweeney's characterizations and noted that unions were not unanimous in their opposition to the president. One national union, the 318,000-member Fraternal Order of Police, has endorsed Bush, as it did four years ago. Two others, representing carpenters and operating engineers, are officially neutral.
Ed Frank, a Labor Department spokesman, said that by many measures workers were better off than they were four years ago. Workplace fatalities are down, job training programs have been updated, and fines and back wages collected from errant employers are at record highs, he said.