Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Workers' Voice and the 2012 Election

First, I’d like to thank Charlie for the kind introduction, and the rest of the regulars here at Workplace Prof Blog for the invitation to guest blog this month. 

Unions’ participation in electoral politics is a topic of continuing interest to me, and one that I have discussed in two recent articles:  one dealing with the impact of Citizens United on unions, and another (coauthored, with Nancy Leong) that describes coalitions between unions and civil rights groups in the political arena.  Therefore, I thought I’d start out by discussing one way in which unions and union members participated in the 2012 presidential campaign season:  the Workers’ Voice SuperPAC.  (In future posts, I plan to discuss other aspects of union political advocacy, including participation in voting rights litigation, and encouragement of members to run for state or local office.)

As many readers know, Workers’ Voice is an AFL-CIO SuperPAC that focused its resources in part on facilitating targeted door-to-door canvassing by union members.  Because of Citizens United, Workers’ Voice could canvass at non-union households; this was a change from past years, in which union canvassing was restricted to union households. 

Why did Workers’ Voice devote scarce resources to canvassing, rather than television and radio ads?  I suspect the answer lies in part in the realization that the labor movement would be dramatically outspent on media.  But there are additional considerations as well.  (Full disclosure:  Before the election, I expressed skepticism in an interview that even a well-coordinated canvassing effort could balance the effect of other forms of political persuasion.)  For one, unions have a lot of experience with political canvassing, and therefore have a good sense of what works.  However, much of this experience comes from communicating with union members.  (Working America, an AFL affiliate for non-union workers, provides an important exception, though even there, I suspect that organizers are in more frequent contact with current and potential members than are election canvassers.)  While it is thus not initially obvious that effective canvassing techniques in the union context translate directly into the non-union context, canvassers could of course refine their approach as they went along.  In addition, there is the effect of the SB-5 referendum in Ohio and the recall efforts in Wisconsin to consider; these campaigns helped identify strong networks of union activists and supporters who could be called on to participate in the 'ground game' (though some of these people may have been fatigued by the time election season arrived).  In these two key swing states, then, canvassing seems to have been a natural extension of recent union activism.   

Finally, it is worth considering unions’ opportunity costs.  In his book, Why Unions Matter, Michael Yates states that “there is a direct connection between the increase in the amounts of money and effort labor has expended politically and the decline in organizing efforts.”  Here, I think there is much to be said for door-to-door canvassing over other forms of political campaigning by unions, particularly given the chance that face-to-face contacts could translate into support for future organizing efforts.  Given all this, the extent to which union canvassing of non-union homes results in either political or organizing gains seems like an important area of potential research.

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