Will Labor Learn Recall's Lessons in Battleground States?
In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced its plan to launch a "massive field campaign" in eight battleground states.
Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia are the targets of the union's biggest-ever ground effort, said SEIU national political director Brandon Davis, to reelect President Obama and help down-ballot candidates.
Because of unprecedented assaults on working families by the right, Davis said, "We have to change our approach to meet the moment."
The size of the effort will be similar to 2008, when the SEIU spent $85 million on Obama's first election, Davis said. But, he said, it will include a new emphasis on contacting voters in the general population--three times more than in previous campaigns, which emphasized union members.
During the summer and fall, 750 SEIU members will work full time on the battleground states operation, coordinating 100,000 volunteers to knock on 3 million doors and make 13 million phone calls.
The new effort also includes the SEIU's $4 million Spanish-language ad buy last week, which highlights differences between Obama and Mitt Romney on immigration.
This is part of a strategy to specifically target African-American and Latino voters, as well as young people, marrying immigration with other issues that affect an increasingly brown American working class. The campaign also includes voter education on to help people sort out the new voter I.D. laws in swing states.
To underline what's at stake for working-class folks in states that have seen a brutal combination of tough economic times and the Republican politics of austerity, the SEIU chose to feature Samara Knight, a nursing assistant from Cleveland, Ohio, on the call with reporters.
Knight, who will be working on the SEIU's Ohio electoral campaign full-time, broke down in tears as she described losing her home to foreclosure after borrowing against it to pay for her disabled son's medical care.
"I chose to save my child's life," she said of her decision to go deeply into debt to cover hospital bills that went beyond the limits set by her HMO. "It's hard to say to your child you have to move because you can't afford to stay in your home. I don't want to put that stress on my child--that it's his fault."
Knight said she is committed to talking to voters about the injustice of Republican proposals to cut basic services like Medicaid and Medicare. "If we don't get out and educate our community we're lost . . . we're doomed," she said.
Key themes of the SEIU campaign include "creating good jobs now," making corporations and the wealthy "pay their fair share" of taxes, defending against proposed Republican cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and clearing "a fair path to citizenship for immigrants."
It all sounds like a good game plan.
Furthermore, Davis emphasized that, while labor will never be able to match the money spent by rightwing billionaires, "we are focusing on a robust ground game because we think that's where our advantage is."
But when asked specifically about the lessons learned from the failed effort to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker--where all of these same issues, and a ground effort that took on big rightwing money came into play--neither Davis nor Eliseo Medina, the union's secretary-treasurer, had a very satisfactory response.
Davis mentioned the "broken nature of our system" that lets out-of-state billionaires hijack an election. Fair enough.
He pointed to the inspiring nature of the massive protests against the attack on public employees' collective bargaining rights in both Wisconsin and Ohio.
The real lesson of Wisconsin, Davis said, was "the awakening not only of America's labor movement, but what a people's movement can do." He pointed to the 100,000 people who rallied in Madison and the 75,000 in Ohio to fight for workers rights.
But, while Ohio citizens succeeded in repealing the legislation that rolled back workers' rights, in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker won the recall election and has become a national Republican star, pushing his "divide and conquer" strategy into the national arena.
Voters in Wisconsin went for Walker by a margin of 7 percent.
More than $30 million in out of state cash and a national focus by groups like Americans for Prosperity helped Walker win.
But so did a toxic and highly effective message: making teachers and other members of public employee unions the target of resentment by ordinary working folks.
Walker won the ten poorest counties in Wisconsin with the message that public employees were sucking up tax money from working people who don't enjoy the same benefits that teachers and government workers do.
That message is going to come back in the fall.
As for the unions' efforts to combat it,
"I don't know how they could take anything from the recall other than they got their heads handed to them," says Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks money in politics.
There is no question that the money imbalance was overwhelming.
The pro-Walker forces outspent the citizens who tried to recall the governor by more than 7-to-1, raising three-quarters of that money from big out-of-state donors.
The SEIU spent just under $1 million in Wisconsin, according the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Americans for Prosperity, and its founder David Koch, spent $4 million "at a bare minimum," McCabe notes.
Labor overall spent about $10.6 million in traceable contributions to various committees during the recall effort in Wisconsin.
But a lot of that money went to the losing candidate in the primary, Kathleen Falk, who won all the major union endorsements.
The unions lost in the primary, with Falk, and then they lost again in the general election.
Not only that, labor's ground game, despite the general theory that unions excel at "boots on the ground," was outgunned by Americans for Prosperity and a pro-Walker get-out-the-vote effort that state Republicans have been bragging could help turn the state red in November.
And then there is the glaring problem that 38 percent of union households voted for union-busting Governor Scott Walker in the recall election. Walker added those votes together with the non-union working poor--turning the rural counties on the Western edge of the state from blue to red.
The divide-and-conquer message--that public employees have it too good, and that working folks who are scraping by should not have to subsidize benefits for teachers and state workers--played big in rural Wisconsin.
Finally, while highlighting immigration issues and targeting black and brown voters makes a lot of sense as a national political strategy for the Democrats, in Wisconsin the lesson of the recall was that the Republicans have built what Mike McCabe calls "a rich-poor alliance" among white voters.
In Milwaukee and Dane County, the Democrats got a sizable turnout in communities of color.
But the election was lost in the white, rural parts of the state, where working-class voters have turned against both labor and the Democrats.
Don't get me wrong: the SEIU strategy of bringing together working people and specifically African American and Latino voters makes a lot of sense as America gets browner, and because there is a genuine coalition of interests there.
McCabe is optimistic that the rich-poor alliance that worked so well for the Republicans here is, ultimately, "a fragile alliance," both because of the obvious ways in which the true interests of the rich and poor collide, and because it is a white alliance and SEIU is correct to focus on the browning of America.
But if labor, progressives, and Democrats are going to effectively combat the powerful combination of big money and the politics of resentment, they are going to have to start by taking a hard look at exactly what happened in Wisconsin.
Make no mistake--the Republicans are doing just that, as they hone their national strategy going into November.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "What’s at Stake in Wisconsin."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter
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