« Employers Slashing Benefits | Main | 2004 Labor Campaign »

November 08, 2004

Reflections On The Labor Campaign

Like most of you, I am still in the midst of one deep funk, in a deeper set of blues than even Picasso in his blue period, over the election returns. But I do have some thoughts about the labor campaign...

I went to Pennsylvania, a battleground state, the weekend before election day and stayed there through the actual elections. I ended up there by happenstance: my brother lives in northeastern Pennsylvania, in the city of Scranton where he teaches at the university, so I figured it would be both less expensive for the union and easier on me to stay with him.

Northeastern Pennsylvania is rust belt before there was rust belt. Once the home of the Molly Maguires, one of the finer contributions of Irish immigrants to the American labor movement, its coal mining and steel industries never recovered from the Great Depression. Cities like Scranton and Bethelehem, Allentown and Lehigh in the next valley south, are down and out, with little economic dynamism. During the days that I walked two blue-collar towns on the borders on Scranton [Dunmore and Archbald], I found that at least one-third of the union households on my precinct lists were retirees. And it is more than a little bit disconcerting to have people tell you, again and again, that the person you are calling for on your telephone list has been dead for five years. It leaves you feeling that you are in part of the world that history has left behind.

The labor campaign was interesting in that it was organized by two folks who had been in Scranton for months -- one from SEIU and one from the AFT. That is all the more interesting because neither of these internationals have any real presence in the area -- as far as I can figure out, the SEIU has a small hospital it just organized, and the AFT has nothing [the local teacher unions are NEA]. Yet when it came time to put together a ground campaign, two unions with a real record of organizing had the people to put into the area and run the effort. My partners in the precinct walking were also interesting. Both were locals that took days off from work to do campaigning -- one a middle aged woman Steelworker working from a place that had nothing to do with Steel [a business school] and the other a middle aged woman Machinist from a place that had nothing to do with machine shops [she was a municipal employee of Scranton]. There were about eight SEIU workers who were part of the group that had taken leaves of absence to do campaigning, and they had been in Scranton for some time. [Talk about depressed: can you imagine how they feel?] It seems that the campaign reflected very much the reality of a labor movement in transition.

It is also worth noting that on election day, we ran into five other teams of folks working on behalf of the Kerry campaign -- not only folks from the campaign proper, but also other union folks, and MOVEON.ORG and ACT folks. We did not run into a single Bush team. The Kerry forces seemed a whole lot better organized: they were a sea of Kerry lawn and house signs, and far fewer Bush signs.

But although we won the county and the state, it was not by a whole lot. Clearly, the Bush forces were organized. Some of this is explicable in terms of the Bush forces concentrating on areas of greater strength [there were areas. such as Clarks' Point suburbs of Scranton, which were more upscale than where I was], or areas they needed to win Pennsylvania, such as the Philadelphia suburbs. But it is also clear that the Bush forces were organized in different ways. Bush signs were often combined with pro-life, anti-abortion signs. It seems to me that they were using church and religious networks which did not go door to door, but targetted, perhaps by phone, their contacts.

What all of this means, we need to figure out. I would not put too much stock in the exit polls, but my own experience suggests that the evangelical and fundamentalist vote was pivotal in this election. We were good, but it wasn't enough.

Posted by Leo Casey at November 8, 2004 03:22 PM