Unionists energized for election battles

WASHINGTON (PAI) — Off-year election results in state and municipal races on Nov. 6 show union voters are already energized for 2008, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says. And they also show unionists and the country want “a clear rejection of Bush administration policies,” adds federation Political Director Karen Ackerman.

Ackerman, Sweeney and others spoke in a telephone press conference after election returns came in from New Jersey local races, the Virginia Legislature, gubernatorial contests in Kentucky and Mississippi, mayoral races in several large cities and ballot initiatives in many states.

The most notable results were in “red” states. In Kentucky, former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear (D), making his first statewide race in 20 years, handily ousted scandal-scarred GOP Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Beshear’s winning margin was around 20 percent.

In Utah, one of the “reddest” states for anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush in 2004, the Utah Education Association and its allies waged a successful campaign to defeat a plan to give taxpayer-paid vouchers to attend private schools to the parents of every child in the state, destroying public education.

Vouchers, passed early in the year by the GOP-run state Legislature — but only by one vote in the state’s House — lost by 62-38 percent. The ballot measure lost in every Utah county.

In Virginia, where unionists are only 4 percent of the workforce, their get-out-the-vote efforts, phone banks and precinct walking helped overcome GOP campaigning against immigrants. Virginians ousted five GOP state senators, changing party control there to the Democrats for the first time since 1991, and cut the GOP margin in the state assembly.

In New Jersey, 33 more unionists joined 400 already elected to local offices.

“There were 350,000 union voters out of a total of 1.05 million in Kentucky,” Ackerman said, including unionists, members of their households, retirees and 50,000 Kentucky members of Working America, the AFL-CIO’s affiliate for people who do not have union locals. “And 77 percent voted for Beshear. That’s an astounding number.”

And in Kentucky and Virginia “we’re gearing up for Senate races” and the presidential race next year, she added. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has $9 million in the bank and who has won past elections easily, faces Bluegrass State voters next year. Virginia’s GOP-held U.S. Senate seat is open.

“Working people are driving a major change in the political landscape. We’re on the cusp of a shift that could redefine American politics for decades to come,” Sweeney predicted. Voters, he added, “sent a powerful message that if you attack working people, you do so at your peril.”

In the Utah vote, 60 well-heeled right-wingers pumped $3.8 million into their pro-vouchers campaign, and their ad blitz tied opposition to vouchers to “liberals” and unions. It didn’t work due to what NEA’s White called “our new ground game.” Unions and their allies, including student groups and school boards, spent just over $3 million.

White explained the Utah campaign featured micro-targeting of pro-education voters, especially in rural areas, along with close coordination with the AFL-CIO. That micro-targeting identified — and sent tailored mailings to — persuadable voters or to pro-worker voters who, however, were unlikely to go to the polls in years past.

Micro-targeting will be particularly useful next year, White added, because NEA, unlike the other big teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, has a high proportion of rural members and chapters in every state. That could help turn out pockets of pro-education voters who have previously been unidentified. She said NEA would continue and expand both micro-targeting and cooperation with the AFL-CIO in 2008.

“We paid special attention to rural areas. We pointed out there weren’t even private schools available for some of these parents to send their kids to. Some would have had to drive hundreds of miles — and we showed them that on our web site,” White said. The results were led by vouchers’ 4-to-1 loss in a rural southwest Utah county.