Union reaches out and touches voters

Times Staff Writer

Tony Moreno is talking about the weak economy and about jobs lost to outsourcing. He’s trying to sell a Barack Obama presidency -- one union member to another.

But Moreno is in Los Angeles and the union member he’s talking to is in Pennsylvania.

Moreno, a part-time cook at Sony studios and member of Unite Here Local 11, has volunteered at a bustling phone bank run by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. And all the calls he’s making are long distance.


At the height of the presidential race, Los Angeles County is operating the largest interstate call center in the AFL-CIO’s political effort, a $53-million national campaign. The effort is aimed at getting the union’s mostly Democratic members to show up at the polls and to sway undecided voters -- particularly in battleground states.

“We challenged ourselves to do this,” said Maria Elena Durazo, head of the politically powerful L.A. County labor group. “We feel very confident about our capacity to deal with the local ballot measures and also figure out how to be helpful to electing Obama.”

Six days a week, 125 workers gather at four union halls across the county and don telephone headsets hooked up to personal computers. A central computer at each location speed-dials numbers from a database provided by the national campaign. When someone answers, a union worker is patched through and begins the pitch.

“We’re calling fellow members of the AFL-CIO,” one volunteer said on a recent evening. “We’re wondering if we could count on your support for Barack Obama?”

About half the time, the conversations end in a quick yes, they said. Others go longer. Whatever the answer -- yes, no or maybe -- it is entered into the database, which is e-mailed back to campaign headquarters.

In 2000, it would have been more difficult to coordinate an effort like this, said Mike Podhorzer, deputy political director for the AFL-CIO, because database tools were less sophisticated and it was more cumbersome to transfer the enormous data files that make up the call list.


“If someone in Colorado makes a call to a union member in Colorado and finds out that they’re an Obama supporter, within 24 hours that gets put back in our database, and when we cut the next list for L.A., we can cut that name off the list,” Podhorzer said. “Being able to merge that close to real time is something that’s borne of the Internet and broadband technology.”

There’s also a greater sense of urgency in this election for labor leaders, because of the possibility of not only a Democratic White House, but also a majority in Congress, offering the promise of friendly legislation.

High on labor’s list is the Employee Free Choice Act, which was passed by the House but stalled in the Senate. It would allow union representation when a majority of employees sign cards requesting it, doing away with secret ballot elections, which employers can now require.

The bill would also force mediation between unions and employers on the first contract if the parties cannot agree on terms.

Union leaders say the bill would reduce worker intimidation by business owners; business interests counter that doing away with the secret ballot would increase worker intimidation by union organizers.

Unions have been losing members for decades, diluting their power and reach from a high of 40% of the nation’s workers in the 1930s to 7% today. The proposed legislation aims to increase union membership by making it easier to organize.

“That legislation is sort of symbolic as to why this election is so important to labor,” Durazo said.

Sen. Obama is one of dozens of co-sponsors of the bill. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain opposed it, calling secret ballots a “hallmark of our democratic process,” and was among dozens of senators who co-sponsored a competing bill, the Secret Ballot Protection Act, which never left committee.

When she began the Los Angeles phone bank in September, Durazo said she wanted to take on the Western battleground states: New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. She said her purpose was to free union members in those key states to campaign door to door.

As the effort progressed, national AFL-CIO officials began giving Los Angeles phone bankers lists from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, the union’s top priorities. McCain abandoned Michigan last week.

Durazo said her group aims to talk to 200,000 union members before the election. At the labor federation’s headquarters in Los Angeles, organizers meet daily with representatives of local member unions, prodding: How many members can you send tomorrow?

Voices blend together in the one-car-garage-sized space at the federation’s office near MacArthur Park, where 38 small white cubicles have been squeezed together.

“A lot is at stake right now. We want our jobs to come back to America, not go to China,” Moreno said into the phone on a recent Tuesday night.

The issue -- a big focus of the union’s campaign -- is close to Moreno’s heart. He lost his full-time job earlier this year and couldn’t make his mortgage payments. As a result, he said he lost his house and had to move in to his in-laws’ garage. He was able to piece together two part-time jobs but was recently dealt another blow: His wife was laid off.

Across the room, Erica Kent, a 25-year-old oil refinery operator, is working hard to close a deal. She was pulled off her regular job by her union, United Steelworkers Local 675, to work at the phone bank full time until the election.

“The fear for me is that if we have another eight years like George Bush’s, we’re going to have even less of a middle class than we already have,” she tells one undecided voter in Nevada.

It was a tough sell. The conversation went on for more than five minutes. Like a good saleswoman, Kent switched to another topic, the Employee Free Choice Act.

“McCain has voted this down twice. He has said he will veto it. We need Obama in office so we can sustain ourselves and perpetuate unions,” she continued. “So, if you’re undecided, please err on the side of unions.”

“Have I convinced you?” Kent asked the woman.

“I’m leaning that way,” she replied.