February 27, 2006

Unions in push to help Democrats win Congress

By Peter Szekely

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - AFL-CIO leaders on Monday approved an
ambitious and expensive political strategy aimed at mobilizing
their members to put Democrats back in control of Congress and
several state legislatures.

While a few Republicans may get labor backing, the $40
million plan -- the biggest ever for the labor federation in a
non-presidential election year -- would target 21 states and 40
congressional districts where union officials believe
Democratic candidates can win in the November election.

"We're hopeful that this campaign is going to be very
successful in electing a majority to Congress as well as state
legislatures and governors' races who can be held accountable
on (worker-related) issues," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney
told a news conference.

Sweeney insisted that the 54-union federation's political
program was officially nonpartisan, but he acknowledged that
support will go overwhelmingly to Democrats.

The plan approved by the AFL-CIO's policy-making executive
council at its winter meeting in San Diego would fund polling,
research and get-out-the vote drives. It would also pay for
union volunteers to take time off their jobs to make house
calls, mostly to other union members, on behalf of candidates,
officials said. In all, they said they will try to mobilize
11.4 million registered voters from union households.

No money would go to candidates, Sweeney said.

The labor movement has become adept at getting union
members and their families to the polls on election day. Union
household voters made up about 25 percent of the turnout in
several recent elections, twice as high as the percentage of
union members in the wage and salaried workforce.

But despite its ability to turn out its members, labor
failed to defeat President George W. Bush in 2004, even though
two-thirds of voters from union households voted for Democrat
John Kerry.

"It just goes to show there are not enough union members,"
AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman told Reuters.


The AFL-CIO's response to the dwindling ranks of union
members has been a major point of contention between it and a
rival labor federation, Change to Win, launched last year by
five dissident union leaders who said the AFL-CIO was putting
too few resources into recruiting nonunion workers.

Change to Win advocates putting more resources into
organizing members before it can realistically consider
ambitious political drives, while Sweeney said politics and
organizing were "two parallel strategies" of the AFL-CIO.

Part of the reason for labor's election failure in 2004,
Ackerman said, was legions of new voters who turned out to
vote, often motivated by single issues that benefited Bush.

But with general voter turnout generally lighter during
midterm elections and labor's turnout fairly constant, Ackerman
said she was optimistic that could change this year.

"For us the question is turnout," she said. "In 2006, when
there are fewer voters, I think we have an even greater role to

Sweeney said union voters were instrumental in electing
Democratic governors in Virginia and New Jersey last year.

Ackerman also said unions are learning from their mistakes
and have adjusted their program to more effectively get
issue-oriented and political messages to workers.

Another growing arsenal for the AFL-CIO is its Working
America affiliate of more than 1 million nonunion workers who
have joined voluntarily and receive a constant stream of
labor's messages on issues of economic importance to workers.

"We'll be part of labor's 2006 mobilization plan," said
Karen Nussbaum, the group's executive director.