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Persuasion and Participation: Unions and the Electorate

2010 November 5

“Don’t eat in the cafeteria today,” one coworker said to another as he left for his lunch break. “That lady’s here again.”

“Oh my god, again?” he responded, rolling his eyes. No further description of “that lady” was required — after all, it was November first, the day before a major election.

She materializes at politically charged moments, like a spirit conjured up by the words “and I approve this message.” She’ll take up residence at a table in the break room, shuffling papers, and wait. Those unwitting souls who enter her sphere of influence will be subject to at least forty-five minutes of guilt-induced captivity. As I pass by at the end of my shift, I see her victims nodding robotically, smiling through clenched teeth, as their minds race for some excuse — any excuse — that will get them out of phone banking.

The infamous break room lady is not, in fact, a magical apparition. She works for our Local, and her point and purpose is political education: that is, she comes around and explains, to whoever will listen, where candidates stand on issues that affect working people. Then she urges us to volunteer to support the candidates of whom the union approves. (The business that employs me is affiliated with a quarter-million-strong service workers’ union.)

For all the grumbling, my colleagues behave much like other union workers across the country when election day rolls around: we participate. Of course, some of my coworkers are more concerned with getting home and getting dinner on the table than getting out the vote, as is the case with any demographic. However, proportionally, union workers boast a higher voter turnout than the electorate as a whole. The representatives that Union Headquarters sends out have something to do with that, but there is more to the story. As the above-cited article notes, union workers do not always turn out for the union-endorsed candidate. What’s more, many unions are involved with efforts to include greater numbers of middle- and working-class people, unionized or not, in the political process. These efforts run the gamut from voter registration drives to transporting people to the polls. For example, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations made a concerted effort to register unemployed people in time for Tuesday’s general election.

As my boyfriend (and, as it happens, coworker) Ed put it, unions have a fundamentally democratic character. The processes of voting on whether to join a union and electing a delegate (representative) mirror the process of voting for government officials. More generally, union workers are unique in the extent to which they control their 9-to-5 lives. In Marxist terms, they’re less alienated than the average employee. (Note how organized labor supporters favor the active term “worker,” which implies that the person performs a task that makes him valuable, while others will more commonly refer to “employees,” a word which implies that the laborer is beholden to an employer.) Perhaps this sense of empowerment carries over into political behavior.

Union membership seem to inspire a sense of old-fashioned “civic duty,” to some degree — although those cafeteria ladies (in their various forms) certainly help things along. I volunteered for a campaign for the first time at the union’s behest; for those who don’t know me, I am as shy a person as you’ll find, and it took a persistent union agent to get me out of my apartment and into my neighbors’. For a few broiling-hot days last fall, I canvassed Sunnyside with another volunteer, knocking on doors, encountering my neighbors in all their multilingual glory, and asking them to vote Jimmy Van Bramer for city council. I didn’t follow the union’s directive blindly, of course; I believed (and still do) that Van Bramer is a genuinely progressive, compassionate person. When he was elected I felt a sense of engagement I’d never felt before.

There is a darker side to this talent for getting people out. Unions are in the business of persuasion and coercion; they’re good at it. Union chiefs will state that they decide who to endorse based on “what’s good for working families,” et cetera, but they’re really looking at one issue: does this candidate support organized labor or not? In a two-party contest, the pro-labor candidate is usually the Democrat, and liberals like myself don’t have a difficult decision to make. When those decisions crop up, however, politically engaged union members aren’t always inclined to trust their lawyerly union agents. We know the union has a talent for packaging its own interests as morally correct. Often it rings true — but not always. When union reps at my workplace went looking for pro-Bloomberg campaigners, my coworkers, angry over his third-term grab, did not step up.

A worker’s opinion about the integrity of her union will also impact her response to the ‘union candidate.’ As a security guard and SEIU member recently told the Columbia Herald, “I don’t vote for who they endorse, not really… In terms of the unions influencing me, on a scale of one to ten, maybe four. They don’t really have the best reputation for representing our interests.” Union members get fatigued when they feel their union does not come through for them, and that frustration is sometimes repaid when the union comes calling for activism. Or, as the coworker from the first paragraph put it to me, “It’s bullshit….They want you to do something for them before they do something for you.” Another coworker claimed that “they only come around when there’s an election” — an exaggeration borne of the same frustration.

Nationwide, the “labor vote” did not influence this week’s election as heavily as the AFL-CIO had hoped, but it was credited with tipping the balance in two close New York State races: those for Comptroller and Attorney General.

AG candidates Eric Schneiderman and Dan Donovan were polling neck and neck on Nov. 1, but Schneiderman was favored by several unions and ultimately emerged victorious. Some journalists, including the editors at the Daily News, could not forgive Schneiderman for his part in allowing Pedro Espada to scheme his way into a stint as State Senate Majority Leader during the Albany Coup-Snafu of 2009. Basically, Schneiderman, who had served six terms in the State Legislature, had “insider” status working against him. However, both men were qualified, and New York’s papers were divided about which to support.

The competition between Harry Wilson and Tom DiNapoli for Comptroller was another story: Wilson was clearly the better choice. The ultra-liberal Times, tea-stained Post, and lefty-moderate Daily News all rallied around him. (When’s the last time we saw that happen?) As Liz Benjamin wrote on State of Politics, “Wilson carried every region of the state outside NYC, but DiNapoli’s success in the Democrat-dominated five boroughs – generated largely to the GOTV effort mounted on his behalf by labor unions – proved too much for the political newcomer and former hedge fund manager to overcome.” After Wilson’s concession, DiNapoli made a victory speech in which he thanked “the Democratic Party, the Working Families Party and especially my brothers and sisters in the labor movement.”

Labor unions, like religions, are founded on moral principles; however, like religions, they can accrue money and power, and stray from their original purpose. They need to be policed, particularly since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allows unions as well as corporations to spend fantastic amounts of money on political campaigns. The spirit of the unions can move people to become politically active in their communities, but the coffers of the unions can push them in the wrong direction.

Unions, like any large organizations, have their shortcomings. Sometimes those shortcomings are all the more disappointing because of the union’s ostensibly idealistic mission. However, those who are quick to denounce all unions (or all religions, for that matter) as corrupt, hypocritical, fraudulent entities should remember one thing: without idealists — however flawed they may be — we are left with people whose only concern is the bottom line. For every corrupt union official, there are several workers who may be motivated to get involved in local politics and who will learn, with new alertness, what their own beliefs are.

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