Labor was key in turning Ohio, and U.S., blue

CLEVELAND — According to preliminary data, organized labor can claim credit for nearly 40 percent of Barack Obama’s vote in Ohio, turning the state from red to blue, a key element of the national Democratic victory.

At a press conference Nov. 5, Karen Ackerman, AFL-CIO political director, said exit polls in Ohio indicated that 30 percent of all voters were either union members, retirees and their families or members of Working America, the labor federation’s community affiliate. That means that of the 5.2 million votes in the state’s presidential election, 1.52 million were union-affiliated. Of these, two-thirds or 1.04 million voted for Obama, according to pollster Guy Molyneux.

That is nearly 40 percent of the 2.67 million votes Obama won in the Buckeye State.

Ohio Labor 2008, the political effort of the AFL-CIO, operated independently of the official Obama campaign and was legally barred from reaching outside its ranks. It concentrated on 1.3 million active union members and retirees and their families as well as the 800,000 members of Working America.

These 2.1 million voters were contacted repeatedly by mail, by phone, at workplaces and in home canvassing. A similar effort was made by unions affiliated with the Change to Win federation, including the Teamsters, Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees and Unite Here.

The labor fraction of Obama’s vote is particularly remarkable considering that last April, Ohio AFL-CIO President Joe Rugola reported results of a poll showing that 57 percent of union members in the state had a favorable impression of Republican Sen. John McCain.

At the time, labor was divided between supporting Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, but it immediately launched a hard-hitting campaign of persuasion with literature exposing McCain’s strongly anti-union record. When Clinton dropped out, labor rapidly closed ranks behind Obama and, concerned that white members might be reluctant to support an African American candidate, began issuing literature highlighting issues critical to working people and the Illinois senator’s 98 percent pro-labor voting record.

In addition, the labor movement did massive mailings to union retirees and veterans contrasting McCain’s dismal voting record and Obama’s excellent record on issues affecting these groups.

Tens of thousands of volunteers from organized labor and Working America participated and many testified to the effectiveness of the effort. Jimmy Goggin, political coordinator for Laborers Local 310 in Cleveland, said that while nearly 20 percent of his local members were initially undecided or for McCain, by the end of the campaign all but a handful voted for Obama.

Rugola played an important role in mobilizing volunteers at the state AFL-CIO convention in September, which turned into a three-day election rally. Then, throughout October until the final weekend before the election, he walked some 300 miles across the state holding rallies in towns large and small at closed manufacturing plants to dramatize the danger posed if Republican economic policies continued.

While overall turnout in Ohio was 60 percent, in union and Working America households it reached 75 percent according to the AFL-CIO.

The effect of the labor campaign was dramatic. According to Molyneux, 57 percent of white male union members voted for Obama, while 57 percent of white men, overall backed McCain.

Obama also clearly benefited from the massive voter registration conducted in the African American community by ACORN and other groups. The Republicans frantically attempted to disqualify the 400,000 new registration forms turned in by ACORN on grounds that a handful were found to be deficient or fraudulent. ACORN itself had pointed these forms out to election boards and estimated that 250,000 of the newly registered actually voted. Obama won in Ohio by a 220,000-vote margin and not one case of voter fraud was reported.

Secretary of State Jennifer Bruner fought the Republican challenge in court and won. Labor can also claim credit for that victory since it was decisive in electing Bruner in 2006 as Democrats took over the state from a corruption-ridden Republican administration. That administration included former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell who became notorious for attempts to suppress Democratic votes in the 2004 presidential election.

Although the state Obama campaign focused less on persuasion and more on identifying supporters and making sure they voted, it made a major contribution to the victory with aggressive and innovative grassroots tactics. This included fielding an army of staff and volunteers in virtually every one of Ohio’s 88 counties. Many of these were in rural areas previously ignored by Democratic campaigns. Through radio and TV ads, mailings and door-to-door canvassing the Democratic vote in these communities increased. The largest increase came in counties in Northwestern Ohio, home to one Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, aka “Joe the Plumber,” the object of McCain’s futile effort to pose as a champion of ordinary white workers nationwide.