Viewpoint: This Election Shows Labor's Ground Game Matters (Especially During a Pandemic)

A Latina canvasser wearing a mask and holding a clipboard speaks to an older man leaning on his gate about the election

UNITE HERE developed a contactless canvassing model that included intensive training, personal protective equipment, and safety protocols. This model allowed the union to reach hundreds of thousands of voters at their doors, even as the Biden campaign refused to mobilize a traditional in-person canvassing operation. Photo: UNITE HERE Twitter.

Despite record turnout, the razor-thin margins that ousted Trump in the recent election sharply illustrate the important role of field work—in-person conversations and timely personal follow-up by trained canvassers—particularly when expanding the electorate with Black and Latino working class voters.

After 98 percent of its members were put out of work due to the pandemic, the hospitality workers union UNITE HERE set out to make sure those margins materialized in critical swing states by applying the best practices of workplace organizing to elections. The lessons of this outcome should not only be applied to future elections, but to the workplace and community organizing needed during this pandemic and during a Biden administration.

UNITE HERE brought the discipline, ambition, and methodology of its stellar workplace organizing to the election canvass operation. The union sent 1,700 canvassers—many of them Black and Latino union members whose jobs and families were hit hard by COVID-19—to knock doors in Nevada, Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

Despite being smaller than many other unions, and with many members out of work and staff laid off, this was the largest canvassing operation in these states of any union during the election. The union developed a contactless canvassing model with the guidance of epidemiologists that included intensive training, personal protective equipment, and safety protocols. This operation proved that door-to-door canvassing can be done effectively and safely during a pandemic—and, more importantly, that it must be done!

ORGANIZING CHANGES OUTCOMES

Changing demographics provides the opportunity for new election outcomes but it does not change election outcomes itself. Only organizing does that.

This is proven by work in Georgia by the New Georgia Project, whose CEO Nse Ufot told NPR, “It was never about hundreds of thousands of registrants. It was always about expanding the electorate and building what we call super-voters. And these are people who vote in every election in which they're eligible—so tons of voter registration coupled with voter education and, you know, smart, engaging voter mobilization tactics.”

In Wisconsin, a similar effort by Voces de la Frontera galvanized a network of 20,000 voters, including many new or infrequent Latino and multiracial youth voters, helping win the state for Biden and Harris. Thanks in part to this work, Mexican Americans in the state supported Biden by an 80 percent margin, with a 77 percent margin among Latinos overall.

The importance of face-to-face organizing is also, unfortunately, proven by the Trump campaign’s field operation, which registered, persuaded, and mobilized latent and new Trump supporters among Latino communities in Miami and South Texas, where turnout was previously dominated by Democrats.

Black and Latino voters in key states that were under-resourced by the Biden campaign were effectively mobilized by UNITE HERE and grassroots community partners. That made a critical difference.

When states like Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, and Texas begin to turn blue, we don’t get to start from where we left off during the last election. We have to rebuild support every time until the infrastructure is strong enough to withstand a right-wing ground operation, or a pandemic.

Organizing workers into unions along the way, something UNITE HERE has successfully done in these states and other notoriously hard-to-organize places, is critical to the future of politics at the state and national level.

BIDEN’S MISTAKE

The Biden campaign chose not to mobilize a traditional field campaign of in-person canvassing, even in critical swing states where the grassroots infrastructure is tenuous despite some shifts over several election cycles. This was a mistake.

We cannot rely on suburban white-collar voters to vote in ways that benefit the broader working class. Working people, particularly alienated or infrequent voters and non-white low-wage workers, are where the resources have to be invested.

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Fortunately, UNITE HERE, a union with a membership that is majority workers of color and immigrants, had a more sophisticated understanding of how these kinds of voters can be activated.

Imagine what could have been possible if all other unions had invested in the same type of field operation? And imagine what would have happened if UNITE HERE had not talked to 250,000 Arizonans? Or sent 500 canvassers into Philadelphia to get 60,000 voters to pledge to vote—half of whom had not voted in 2016?

We need more unions to ignore the political optics the Democratic campaign thinks are important and find ways to do what we know is effective to reach beyond our own members. Results matter more than the appearance of total cooperation between unions and campaigns. Unions could flex more political muscle and have more influence over what candidates and platforms win if they acted more independently of parties and campaigns.

FIELD WORK IS THE KEY

The obstacles to getting to the polls facing working people, particularly low-wage workers, are many. Transportation, childcare, frequent moving of households, voter suppression, and a lack of a culture of voting are just a few. Lack of information about early voting, time away from work on voting days—all of these logistical problems are only compounded by the pandemic and fake news.

Only field work—intensive canvassing, using organizing best practices (finding out what people care about, asking three times, setting expectations for follow up with the canvasser, helping them make a plan, getting them a ride) can overcome this set of challenges. But canvassing requires a large-scale operation to be effective. UNITE HERE delivered to scale:

  • 3 million doors knocked in Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Florida
  • 462,135 infrequent voters pledged to vote for Biden/Harris via a conversation
  • 120,775 of voters spoken to by a UNITE HERE canvasser had not voted in in 2016 in their current state
  • Over two-thirds of conversations were with voters of color

There are very few undecided or actual swing votes among the current population of frequent voters. Identifying support among the communities that would vote if they were organized is more important than appealing to supposed swing voters. In fact, targeting swing voters can have the undesirable effect of agitating folks who are actually pretty loyal to your opposition.

People who have given up hope, particularly those in vulnerable and stressed communities during this painful economic downturn, will show up and vote if prompted with questions about their lives that connects taking action to their own circumstances. It means going beyond talk of a particular candidate (disliking Trump is not enough). That kind of engagement is almost impossible to do over the phone if you do not already know the person. While texting and phone banking is effective for follow up or turning out frequent voters who are already identified as supporters, it is not effective by itself in a race to expand your base in a high-turnout election. Getting people to care requires an army of trained organizers who can have these conversations on doorsteps ten times a day.

Meredith Schafer is a founding member of ILWU local 5. She has organized health care workers in California and Texas, and is currently a union researcher. Martí Garza is a founding organizer of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and has over two decades of experience organizing and mobilizing education and healthcare workers in Latino communities and in the South.

Viewpoint: This Election Shows Labor's Ground Game Matters (Especially During a Pandemic) Despite record turnout, the razor-thin margins that ousted Trump in the recent election sharply illustrate the important role of field work—in-person conversations and timely personal follow-up by trained canvassers—particularly when expanding the electorate with Black and Latino working class voters. After 98 percent of its members were put out of work due to the pandemic, the hospitality wor...