Unions Recruit New Allies for Obama in Battleground States

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MILWAUKEE -- Dressed in a ski jacket to protect her from the morning chill, Sandy Jacobs, an occupational therapist, arrived at a fading, nearly century-old two-family home and knocked on one of the doors.

When no one answered within a few seconds, she knocked on the second one, and suddenly Kimberly Montgomery answered the first door. Ms. Jacobs, a member of the American Federation of Teachers, asked, "Are you going to vote?" and Ms. Montgomery responded, "I've already voted -- for Barack Obama of course."

Suddenly the adjacent door opened -- it was Ms. Montgomery's sister, Angela. She said that she had not voted yet, but she promised she would -- also for Mr. Obama.

Theirs were among the 69,176 doors that union leaders said were part of a statewide labor canvass on Saturday. In labor's last-minute campaign efforts, canvassers in Eau Claire, Kenosha, La Crosse, Racine, Green Bay and other communities carried the same message: Do not forget to vote, and when you do, cast ballots for President Obama and Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic candidate for senator.

With labor's political clout falling short in the 2010 elections, and with membership declining, unions are hoping two new strategies will beef up their efforts this time around. They have welcomed members of outside groups like MoveOn.org, the N.A.A.C.P. and Planned Parenthood to join their canvasses and phone banks. And for the first time union members -- as a result of the Citizens United decision -- can phone and visit not just union households, but nonunion ones.

With just 12 percent of American workers in unions, in past campaigns canvassers often knocked on one door and then skipped 10 others before reaching another union household. Now they can knock on every door.

"In 2000, canvassers might be able to reach only 20 doors in a two hour-shift, but now they can knock on 40 or 45 doors," said Sasha Bruce, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s national campaigns manager. "And when we get people from other groups to join in, we're literally knocking on hundreds of thousands more doors than we have the capacity to do on our own."

Richard Trumka, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s president, said on Thursday that labor's "final four-day push" would knock on 5.5 million doors and make 5.2 million phone calls. He said the effort would help Mr. Obama capture Wisconsin and Ohio

But Sara Fagan, White House political director under George W. Bush, said labor's effort would be smaller and less enthusiastic than in 2008 because so many unionized workers were feeling squeezed economically and were disappointed that Mr. Obama did not enact measures like the so-called card-check bill that would make it easier to unionize workers, a bill blocked by Republicans.

"While unions are doing a lot and spending a lot, members are hurting and a little disillusioned, so we won't see as much on their part as in 2008," Ms. Fagen said.

Labor leaders say that union members in Wisconsin and Ohio are invigorated, rather than disillusioned, because they are so angry about laws pushed by those state's governors to curb the bargaining rights of government employees. Unions mounted a successful effort to repeal the Ohio law through a referendum last November, but failed in their bid to oust Wisconsin's governor, Scott Walker, in a vote in June.

"Unions have basically been in campaign mode for two years," said William Powell Jones, a University of Wisconsin labor historian. "They're stronger as a result."

On Saturday in Kenosha, eight MoveOn volunteers joined about 30 union members -- including a dozen teachers from the Chicago area -- to knock on doors. Ryan Canney of MoveOn expressed frustration that no one answered at two-thirds the doors he knocked, although he left fliers as reminders to vote.

Mr. Canney planned to canvass again on Sunday, but not until after the Green Bay Packers game. "The last thing you want to do is knock on someone's door during a Packers game," he said.

Adam Ruben, MoveOn's political director, said he saw considerable benefit in teaming up his group's 7 million members with the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s more than 10 million members and retirees. MoveOn has repeatedly sent e-mails urging members o report to union halls nearby for canvasses.

"They have the physical infrastructure you need, the expertise, the resources," Mr. Ruben said. "We bring online organizing expertise."

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin A.F.L.-C.I.O., said he was delighted to see union halls become centers of political activity for union and nonunion members.

"It's about building a movement.," he said. "It's not about just one win or loss. It's about the long haul."

The Service Employees International Union has helped establish a community-labor coalition called Wisconsin Jobs Now, which has pushed to raise the minimum wage and stop cuts to Medicaid. The group has enlisted 130 block captains, many in Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods, to distribute campaign literature and drive hundreds of residents to the polls.

Greg Lewis, minister at St. Gabriel's Church of God and Christ, has recruited 207 pastors, most of them African-American, to join the coalition's get-out-the-vote effort.

"We feel it's important to work with Wisconsin Jobs Now to help get people out of their doldrums and get them excited about the campaign," he said.

Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, said he was grateful that unions were so strong and active in battlegrounds like Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"There's a swath of states where organized labor has such depth and leadership and experience in running tough campaigns that they play at a very high level in those states," he said. "That's one of the things that give us a fair amount of confidence."

Scott Furlong, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, said labor's new cooperation with other groups might be an acknowledgment of weakness.

"It might be a realization," he said, "that they're not powerful enough to do things on their own anymore."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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