Labor's Love Lost?
The past two years have not been the best for the labor movement.
In 2004, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D), who carried the strong backing of the AFL-CIO, came up short in his challenge to President George W. Bush. Then came reports in April 2005 that the AFL-CIO was strapped for cash and was likely to make substantial layoffs in its staff. The final blow came four months later when several large unions (most notably the Service Employees International Union) broke away from AFL-CIO and formed the Change To Win coalition.
Once the mightiest of Democratic interest groups, the AFL-CIO's role in politics appeared to be on the wane. Karen Ackerman, political director at the AFL-CIO, sees the coming 2006 election as a chance to prove that despite its struggles, labor still possesses the broadest and most dependable get out the vote apparatus in the Democratic universe and remains a major force within the party.
"We have a huge role to play," said Ackerman, adding that AFL's 2006 effort will be its largest in history. The budget for the AFL-CIO's "Labor 2006" is $40 million, which will be spent in 21 targeted states that contain approximately 12.4 million union members. (In 2004, the AFL targeted 16 states but spent upwards of $50 million.)
Most of this money will be spent in member-to-member contacts ranging from phone calls into union households to door-knocking campaigns aimed at turning out union voters. Ackerman believes the AFL-CIO is uniquely positioned to turn out its members because "no one else talks to workers at the work site."
Ackerman cites recent elections as evidence of the continuing influence of the labor movement. In 2004, turnout of AFL-CIO members far outdistanced that of registered voters in several battleground states. In Ohio, 89 percent of active AFL members voted while 71 percent of the general electorate turned out. In Florida, 71 percent of AFL voters went to the polls as compared to 54 percent of registered voters. Union members have accounted for nne of every four votes cast -- Democrat AND Republican.
Although labor is now split between the AFL-CIO and Change To Win, the two organizations have agreed to work together in 2006 to help candidates who support their quest to expand workers' rights.
But, the rift remains and -- in some ways -- the damage has already been done to the labor movement. "The labor movement spent a lot of time and energy trying to keep the labor movement together," said Ackerman. She added that "if we had a united labor movement there would be more voters in the mix that we would be talking to."
With little chance of a re-unification between the two groups, Ackerman's AFL-CIO is pressing onward. She insisted that the split "hasn't changed what we are doing"; "we are very serious about putting together in 2006 the biggest program possible," said Ackerman. "Our goal is to have a continuous year-round mobilization vehicle."
For Congressional Democrats, much depends on the efficacy of the AFL-CIO's effort. Unlike in 2004 when America Coming Together spent upwards of $200 million on a turnout effort, the AFL is by far the biggest player in the turnout game this cycle. ACT essentially dissolved after the 2004 election and many of the largest donors to it have decided to fund more long-term projects through the Democracy Alliance. Establishment Democrats (including Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) have publicly criticized the alleged lack of support (financial and otherwise) from the Democratic National Committee.
"It is a weakness that we don't have ACT," said Ackerman. Another Democratic operative with close ties to the labor movement explained that there is little question that the AFL-CIO's political program will turn out its members but that no turnout entity exists to target non-union voters who could potentially vote Democratic. "Despite the split, labor is figuring out how to do what it has always done -- and it will work out fine," said the source. "Democrats' problem in this election will not be turning out union voters -- the problem will be turning out other voters -- and that's where an ACT-like entity will be missed."
The 2006 election offers the AFl-CIO real risks and reward. Help win back the House or Senate (or both) and the organization proves its political heft heading into 2008. If, however, Democrats aren't able to capitalize on the favorable political climate to make major gains, expect a slew of stories arguing that labor's influence is ebbing.
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