Greetings From Out West

Posted by Bobbi Murray on October 13, 2008

It might have been that brick to the head as a child (long story), but it was October 6 before I realized the second McCain-Obama debate was October 7.

By then I had committed the debate-evening to an Obama phone bank at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Too ignoble to back out last-minute. So it was down to the County Fed, where I got to see something even more interesting than the Presidential “town hall.”

It was a snapshot of the effort unions are putting in for Obama and the level of organization they bring to bear.

My friends (hee!) — it is heartening.

The LA County Fed, of course, is a major powerhouse, representing 800,000 members in some 350 unions, and led by a fierce, friendly and indefatigable organizer Maria Elena Durazo, an Obama supporter and a national leader in Change To Win.

The Fed is not only key to Obama outreach in California, but has wielded much political clout in local races.

That evening, as will happen almost every night through the election, banks of callers with headsets reached out to LA union voters to urge support on three local measures and a progressive candidate for the very powerful County Board of Supervisors (powerful as in five supes, $20 billion-plus annual budget.)

They also secured votes for Obama. On election day, of course, there will be an operation to get “yes” voters to the polls.

But the fed is also calling swing states, and that was my duty on debate-night. There were 15 volunteers for that, all union members except for a couple of us, each with a cell phone and a list of union voters in Colorado. There are three noxious anti-labor measures on the ballot there. One ballot initiative would bans collective bargaining agreements between unions and businesses that require minimal agency fees from nonmember employees who receive union-negotiated benefits in the workplace — meaning it enforces open shops and so-called “right to work.”

Another would require unions to get individual permission to channel some portion of union dues to political action.

They are championed by hard-right corporate backers — check it out here.

By the way, if you haven’t seen their Web site, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center tracks all things ballot measure, so go look.

Back to the phoning — no doubt you’ve done it, so you know how it can be.

My first call — number not in service.

Second call — four union members in the household, one home. They would vote no on the union-bashing measures, yes on Obama — win!

Then: Not Home. Not In Service. Not Home. Then a guy who claimed he couldn’t hear me. Another man putting his daughter to bed, interested, but couldn’t talk.

Another call — the guy said he would be voting no on the initiatives.

Encouraged, I continued — and we are urging union members to support Senator Obama for President. Have you decided who you are voting for?

“Yes. But Iím not telling YOU.”

Alrighty then!

Time to take a break — and hear other callers’ pitches.

The SEIU member across the table from me had persuaded the several union members in one household to pass the phone from one to the other to discuss the elections with her, as if she were a long distance relative on Thanksgiving calling a family gathering. She was able to mark on her tally sheet — all no on all anti-union initiatives, yes on Obama.

Next to me, three guys in bright purple SEIU shirts glided back and forth through the arguments on the rap sheet the organizers had given us.

“The corporations use our money to fund initiatives and candidates that work against us — and they donít ask,” said the young man diagonally across from me. After a minute, he thanked the voter for his time — after persuading him to vote no on the initiatives. Seems the voter was already leaning towards Obama.

Another SEIU guy down the table from me pushed a voter off the fence. “You’re a retiree? My dad is a retiree, worked for Boeing for years, and you know the only reason you and he have pensions is because of the union.” The voter mulled the point and finally agreed.

None of the callers let anybody off the hook. Their whole approach was, “I’m a union member volunteering my time to talk to other union members: this means YOU.” Once the callers engaged on the ballot initiatives, they argued as deftly and as forcefully for Obama as a working peopleís candidate.

I’m thinking that was a slice of whatís going on around the country — union members moving voters one by one by one.

Unions would of course have to hold a President Obama to account, and this stomach-churning, heaving economic landscape will complicate that further.

But now they are throwing down and, should he be elected, they will certainly be a factor and own some political capital.

Now, enjoy this YouTube of AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Ricahrd Trumka calling out those who would vote against Barack Obama based on race.

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