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Mobilizing the Unorganized: Is Working America the Way Forward? Amy Dean

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Mobilizing the Unorganized: Is “Working America” the
Way Forward?

By Amy Dean


 Click here for PDF version
of this Article
[1]


Given the dramatic decline of union membership, the U.S. labor movement needs to
reach out to a broader base of working- and middle-class Americans. Now more than
ever, nonunion workers need an advocate, within both the economic and political
realms.

This idea is at the heart of Working America, a national initiative established
in 2003 as the “community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.” Working America[2] now claims more than
three million members. Eight years after its creation, the organization has demonstrated
some impressive capabilities; but, at the same time, it raises questions about the
limitations of labor’s vision in using community outreach and organizing to
build an inclusive base of power.

Working America has been successful as an independent political operation in battleground
states. But unless unions address the challenge of forming a common agenda in realms
that go beyond narrow electoral campaigning or political issue advocacy, and unless
they are willing to invest in reviving labor’s local infrastructure, efforts
to reach out to a constituency wider than the movement’s dues-paying members
will continue to be constrained.

Creating a Battleground Canvass

Ideas that laid the groundwork for Working America initially developed in the1980s
out of a discussion about how federations like the AFL-CIO could reestablish themselves
as bodies representing the interests of all working people in the country. Economists—including
Harvard’s Richard Freeman—recommended developing an “associate membership”
program, and the AFL-CIO’s Committee on the Evolution of Work propelled the
idea with its 1985 report, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions.”
Subsequently, through the 1990s and 2000s, labor leaders recognized that reversing
a declining rate of overall unionization needed to be a priority; but they also
recognized that labor needed to be able to establish a base of support that went
beyond dues-paying members covered under collective bargaining agreements.

By 2003, electoral politics emerged as an arena in which labor should reach beyond
its membership base to represent working-class communities. The electoral operations
of affiliate unions had grown more sophisticated than ever before. Labor field campaigns
demonstrated that they could create very high turnouts among their members, and
that—when organized—approximately 70 percent of members would vote for candidates
endorsed by their organization. This represented an historic high—but it also appeared
as something of a limitation, given the declining rate of unionization. Thus, both
the ability as well as the need to reach out to a broader base was clear.

To take the success of labor’s existing voter outreach and replicate it among
nonunion members, Working America established a door-to-door canvass in electoral
battleground states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, Florida,
and New Mexico. The organization targeted moderates and swing voters, especially
members of the white working-class who, starting with the “Reagan Democrats”
of the 1980s, had been the first to flee the Democratic Party. Dues would be voluntary,
as the organization sought to reach out to the largest possible base. The question,
says Working America Executive Director Karen Nussbaum, was whether this constituency
could “be part of a sphere of influence” the same way that union members
were?

Electoral Successes
The answer, Working America demonstrated, is “yes.” The strengths that
the organization can now claim are based in its political focus. It has established
that it can go into battleground electoral districts and deploy an effective political
canvassing operation, run by paid staff. Working America has appealed to blue-collar
voters in areas of declining union density and rallied them to a more progressive
agenda.

In its analysis following the 2008 elections, the organization reported that: “Working
America members voted for Barack Obama at much higher rates than their counterparts
in the public at large…. For example, while white men voted for McCain by sixteen
points, white male Working America members voted for Obama by twenty-seven points.”
Overall, voting patterns among Working America members were comparable to those
of union members.

Not only has the organization been politically persuasive, it has excelled at turnout.
Following the 2010 elections, Working America’s preliminary analysis shows
that people canvassed “voted at an average 7 percent higher rate than their
neighbors. In some states, that difference was as high as 20.4 percent among certain
segments of voters.” The difference such an effort can make in a given race
is profound. In Colorado, Working America knocked on the doors of seventy-nine thousand
voters in advance of the 2010 midterms. Representative Ed Perlmutter, an endorsed
candidate, won by just twenty-four thousand votes.

Longtime labor journalist and
Washington Post
[3]
columnist Harold Meyerson notes, “The particular
niche that Working America occupies is not one that the rest of the liberal coalition
can occupy. They are going after white, working-class swing voters. Who the hell
else could do that?”

Building Capacity, Door to Door

Currently, Working America has a staff of approximately twenty-five people in Washington,
D.C. and a field staff that fluctuates somewhat, but is now near 150. In the past
year, it ran on a budget of approximately $20 million. About half of that funding
came from unions, the other half from outside supporters and the organization’s
members. Nussbaum states that Working America’s field organizers, collectively,
have twenty-five thousand in-person conversations with members and potential members
every week.

In contrast to many political operations, Working America does not merely open field
offices for a few months in the lead-up to elections. Political Director Matt Morrison
explains, “Our primary means of reaching out to members and recruiting them
and renewing them is via the canvass operation. We have canvass offices spread throughout
the country that operate at different sizes. But, generally speaking, we’ll
have an operation up and running for about a year and a half within the cycle. Most
of that happens well before election season.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka adds, “After Election Day was over we used
to dismantle the mechanism that we had in place, and there was no way to do accountability.
We are changing that to do year-round mobilization and education, so that we can
move seamlessly from electoral politics to advocacy, and from advocacy to accountability.
Working America is obviously part of the process.”

According to Nussbaum, about 40 percent of Working America members give canvassers
their e-mail addresses, so the organization maintains an active online program,
sending issue e-mails every seven to ten days. Yet the organization has recognized
that, in order to broaden the base, there is no replacement for walking the neighborhoods
and creating face-to-face connections.

Working America’s Pittsburgh Regional Director Jenn Jannon explains how the
canvass operates:

Many of [our three million members] signed up when a canvasser came to their door,
had a fairly brief conversation with them about an economic issue, [and] got them
to sign on as a member. Then from there [the canvasser] actually engaged the person
in some sort of action right at their door. Our canvas staff [is] doing things like
generating hand-written letters or having people call their legislators, normally
about some sort of state or local or federal issue we are working on that has an
economic impact on our members.

Nussbaum adds:

We say, “Here’s what Working America stands for,” and there’s
a list of five issues: good jobs, a secure retirement, quality education, health
care for everyone, corporate accountability . . . . Two out of three people join,
and that’s been true since the day we started . . . . 25 to 50 percent of
people we talk to will take an action that night. If you’re doing an action
like a petition, 75 percent of people will do it. But even writing letters, making
a phone call right that minute to a congressperson or your state legislator—big
numbers of people will do that.

Less than a quarter of Working America members pay dues of $5 per year. However,
Nussbaum argues that this is by design—the purpose of the organization is to be
as large as possible. Speaking of the principles that guided Working America’s

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