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Working America quietly builds unions

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David Broder
November 11, 2007
— At Harvard University this week, a group of economists will hold a conference to explore a phenomenon that has gone largely unremarked in the wider world—an organizing campaign that has added 2 million workers to the ranks of organized labor in the last four years.

Since the campaign started as a two-state pilot project by the AFL-CIO in 2003, Working America, as the program is called, has expanded to a dozen states.


In a briefing to reporters last week, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Karen Ackerman, the federation’s political director, highlighted the contribution of Working America members to the gains that labor-endorsed Democrats made in off-year races in Kentucky and Virginia. Democrats captured the governorship in the former and took over control of the state Senate in the latter.


To another Karen—Karen Nussbaum, the head of Working America—the message is clear: Keep expanding the program as the 2008 election draws nearer.


The idea of Working America is fairly simple. Surveys show that large numbers of employees in nonunion plants and offices say they would like to have a union, if one were available. But the workplace organizing task has become much more arduous ever since President Reagan broke the strike of air traffic controllers in 1981.


Employers have become more aggressive in resisting unions and often have found help in their effort from the Republican-controlled National Labor Relations Board.


As jobs have shifted from the manufacturing sector, where unions were strong, to nonunionized service and high-tech industries, organized labor has struggled—and lost steadily as a percentage of the work force.


So instead of organizing at the workplace, Working America reaches out to people in their own neighborhoods. On a typical evening, Nussbaum said, she has about 150 paid organizers going door to door in working-class communities, often in the suburbs and exurbs.


Using lists of union members, they skip the households that are already unionized and knock on the doors of their neighbors. The message: We know you’re not part of a union, but you probably have the same concerns we do about jobs, schools and health care. We work on all those issues. Would you like to become an individual member of the AFL-CIO?


“Astonishingly,” Nussbaum said, “two out of three people we talk to join.”


And they are immediately recruited to write a letter to a member of Congress or some other official on an issue the labor federation is lobbying.


“One out of five writes to their congressman that night,” she said.


A profile of the Working America members shows two-thirds of them do not have a college degree, two in five attend church at least weekly, and one-third own guns. Half are neither strong Democrats, nor strong Republicans.


Dues are voluntary but have totaled more than $1 million, Nussbaum said, with most of the funding for Working America coming from the AFL-CIO treasury.


The political benefits of this organizing effort became very visible in last week’s elections. In Kentucky, labor had battled Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher over his campaign to pass a right-to-work law in the state Legislature and block an increase in the state’s minimum wage. As part of that 2006 fight, Working America went into the state and signed up 40,000 members.


Last week, when Fletcher sought a second term against Democrat Steve Beshear, labor leaders claimed that 350,000 people from union households—including the Working America contingent—voted.


A survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found that 77 percent of the regular union household members and 79 percent of the Working America family members voted for Beshear—who trounced Fletcher in the overall returns, as well. The survey further indicated that economic issues stressed by the unions were particularly important influences on these voters—an indication that the campaign had worked.


A Hart poll of Working America members in the 2006 election found that 74 percent had supported Democratic candidates for the Senate and 73 percent, Democratic candidates for the House. In several swing districts, the labor vote clearly made the difference.


Buoyed by such results, labor plans to keep expanding the program. It started in Florida and Missouri and soon added Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. Now it is operating in Washington, Oregon, Iowa, Michigan and other states, as well.


Nussbaum says that the Harvard economists who have called the conference describe it as the fastest-growing labor organization in the country. To her, it is “a well-kept secret.”



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