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Unions push turnout in key states for Gore

In USA Today
30 October 2000

10.30.00 | TACOMA, Wash. -- Steve Rosenthal, national political director of the AFL-CIO, had a parting word for a handful of labor leaders huddled around a table in a bare hotel meeting room.

"The future of the free world is in your hands," he said. He was only half-kidding.

The AFL-CIO earmarked $46 million for 1999-2000 political activities. But with 19 million members, retirees and relatives in union households, "the money we spend is the smallest thing we bring to the table," Rosenthal says. Volunteers and voters are the biggest.

y Nationally, union members are 17% of the voting-age population, but they made up 23% of the electorate in 1996 and 1998. Rosenthal says high union turnout can make up 2-4 percentage points for a lagging candidate. As this year's slogan puts it: "When working families vote, working families win."

Business interests outspent the AFL-CIO 11-to-1 in 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending. Yet labor made a difference in races all over the country, including House squeakers in Nevada and Kansas.

The labor movement resurgence is partly due to a softer approach: giving members information rather than telling how to vote. Unions also have returned to a time-tested turnout method: person-to-person, member-tomember contact in neighborhoods, at workplaces, on the phone and in hand-written notes.

This year's drive is not entirely old-style. Canvassers in Nevada and California use Palm Pilots to call up details on union households. Callers at phone banks push a keyboard button, and a computer finds the household, dials the number and pulls up a script. On the Internet, a new Web page offers material for customized leaflets unions ordered more than a million in the first 10 days the site was up.

But "e-mail is just another form of impersonal communication," Rosenthal says. "Of course we'll use it, but we're trying to bring a personal dynamic back into politics."

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and other leaders are on a "People Power 2000" tour -- the final push in 10 tossup states where labor is crucial to Democratic hopes. They fear a reprise of the Reagan-Bush years when, among other things, air traffic controllers were fired for striking.

"I want to beat George Bush so bad I can taste it!" Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, shouted last week to a parking lot full of volunteers in Portland, Ore. "You get out there and work! Labor to labor, labor to neighbor, neighbor to neighbor!"

Most of the work is low-key. In a pre-dawn visit to a Portland construction site, Sweeney told a couple of dozen workers in hard hats that Bush attacks unions "every chance he gets" and opposes "just about everything" union families have fought for. On Southeast 44th Street, he knocked on doors. One man shouted "What do you want?" as his dog barked. Another came to the door rubbing his eyes; he'd been asleep after working all night.

Sweeney ended up in the living room of Roy Kunelius, 81, a disabled retiree who poured concrete for more than 50 years. Sweeney talked about the election and the cost of the 35 pills Kunelius takes daily. "I've voted since 1940. Every presidential election," Kunelius said.

Countless moments like those help make the AFL-CIO the master of the ground game.

Karl Gallant says labor envy prompted him to found the Republican Majority Issues Committee. It is spending money in 15 congressional races, not on ads but on grass-roots organizing. "The ground game is the most important thing," Gallant says. "It's what the unions do. They do it beautifully."

Copyright 2000 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett

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