WASHINGTON - Undeterred by polls that show Republicans in a strong position for the 2014 elections despite their relentless attacks on workers, the nation's union leaders, gathered here this weekend for a meeting of the AFL-CIO's executive council, believe it is entirely possible to deal significant defeats to the right wing this November.
"You know what our problem is," said the federation's Political Committee chairman, Lee Saunders, "It's turnout. We have prioritized the election races and we have to get our people out. The local unions are being mobilized. If we get our people out, we win and if we don't - well then we have problems. "We cannot have a repeat of 2010," he warned. "That would be a disaster."
In that year the Republican base voted while many in the coalition that elected President Obama stayed home, resulting in the election of scores of tea party Republicans. In off year elections it is often the more conservative voters that turn out to vote.
The first priority, according to Saunders, who is also president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is the state elections in four key states - Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida where unions aim to defeat sitting right-wing governors. In Minnesota, the goal is to keep it Democratic and in two additional states just added to the list, Illinois and Connecticut, the goal is to protect Democratic incumbents in the governors' mansions.
The second priority, he said, is to prevent the Republicans from taking over the Senate and the third is to defeat as many anti-labor members of the House as possible, electing pro-labor candidates in their place.
On retaking the House, the federation's legislative director, Bill Samuels said the "challenge will be to get people to vote down ballot" to remove as many tea party Republicans from the House as possible. He noted that House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi met with council members yesterday to discuss what she said was an approach to retake control of the House from Republicans.
"No one is giving up on the House," said Bill Samuels, the federation's legislative director. That's why we have Pelosi speaking here today."
Saunders defended the decision to concentrate heavily on the state races, however, saying "state houses and legislatures are covering a lot of ground" in laws that affect workers. Since Congress is dysfunctional. We have to involve voters in local politics." Saunders talked about the races in the different key states.
In Ohio, he said, there is a problem because the incumbent GOP governor, John Kasich, "has a lot of money. Ed has to raise more money and we will try to help with that."
Kasich is being challenged by Ed Fitzgerald, the Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) executive.
In Pennsylvania, Saunders said, unions are putting a lot of people on the ground to campaign for the Democrat, Tom Wolf. They are buoyed by opinion polls that show Corbett under water.
Regarding Wisconsin, Saunders said "Mary Burke (the Democratic candidate for governor) is running an excellent campaign" against Scott Walker (the incumbent Republican), whose law stripped 200,000 state and local workers of bargaining rights, and their unions of dues. "Individual unions and will be heavily involved," there, said Saunders. "The economy in the state is still suffering," which will help Burke, he added.
On the situation in Michigan, reclaiming the state legislature "will be tough," Saunders said. The GOP controls the state senate by better than a 2-to-1 ratio and has a 59-51 state house lead. So unions will concentrate on ousting GOP Gov. Rick Snyder. Snyder's legislative successes include a right-to-work for less law, a law letting the state impose a czar on "failing" local governments - used to force Detroit into bankruptcy - and abolition of teacher tenure, among other items.
In Minnesota, Saunders said incumbent Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton, who has worked with the recent DFL state legislative majority to approve pro-worker and pro-woman worker laws, "is in fine shape." But, he added, "We have to protect the legislature." Dayton won the governor's chair in 2010 with 44 percent in a three-way race. That election left him with a GOP-run legislature, and gridlock, leading to a 2-week state shutdown. Democrats took over the legislature in the 2012 balloting.
In Florida, Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist "is in a close race" against his GOP successor, right-wing former hospital chain CEO Rick Scott. Crist will win only if all of labor mobilizes in unity against Scott, Saunders warned.
Saunders warned that Gov. Pat Quinn, D-Ill., is in trouble after alienating unionists over pensions. "Illinois is important, even though we haven't seen eye-to-eye with Quinn on issues," Saunders admits. The state AFSCME is suing to overturn Quinn's pension cuts. "But if he (Quinn) doesn't win, we're in trouble," the AFSCME chief said.
And Connecticut Democrat Daniel Malloy, who once walked a picket line with striking nurses, "has to rebuild alliances," particularly with teachers, Saunders says. "He won narrowly the last time around," with 50 percent of the vote. "But his (Republican) opponent has talked a lot about having 'a Wisconsin moment,'" in the Nutmeg State.
He also called Iowa "a sleeper race" where the pro-worker Democrat "is closing the gap" against long-time GOP incumbent Terry Branstad.
Add all that up, Saunders said, and labor not only must try to win opposition-held seats, but "also protect its friends." But it all comes back to motivating unionists and their allies, he said.
"If we get out our base, and educate, and mobilize and organize our community allies across the country, we win. If we don't get our base out and sit on our hands, we lose."
Photo: Labor and other anti-Walker allies protest inside the capital, February 26, 2011. Madison, WI. Blake Deppe/PW.