Despite setbacks in several states, the American labor movement came out a clear winner in Tuesday’s elections. Most important, they played a key role in ensuring the re-election of President Obama, and contributed significantly to Democratic Senate victories in hotly contested races in Massachusetts, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Virginia.
How effective were the unions’ massive voter-education and mobilization programs in the swing states? This year, for the first time, the network exit polling didn’t ask whether respondents were union members, though it did ask if there was a union member in their household. Historically, while union-household voters are more pro-Democratic than voters with no union members at home, the gap is smaller than that between actual union members and non-members. Also historically, union membership doesn’t make much of a difference among, say, African-American women, who are going to vote Democratic at a 95-percent rate whether or not they belong to a union. Where membership matters is among white working-class voters. (Pollsters don’t ask voters if they’re working class—that’s a pretty subjective assessment—but they do ask if they went to college, so non-college-educated voters are the designated stand-ins for working-class voters.)
Nationwide, the exit polls showed only a small difference between the votes of white working class voters with a union member in their household and those with no union members—indeed, a rate just 2 percent higher. But in the swing states that the unions flooded with volunteers and money, the differences were far greater. In Ohio, non-union household, white-collar voters favored Mitt Romney over Obama by 59 percent to 39 percent. Such voters with a union member in the house, however, favored Obama by a 54 percent to 44 percent margin—a 15 point swing. Among white working-class men, the swing was even greater: 21 points. The numbers for Wisconsin tell a similar story: White working-class voters from non-union households preferred Romney by a 57 to 42 percent margin, while those from union households preferred Obama by 60 percent to 38 percent—an 18 point swing.
The one poll of union members (not just voters with union members in their households) was conducted by Hart Research for the AFL-CIO. Nationally (the poll doesn’t have state-level results), all union voters went for Obama over Romney by a 66 percent to 34 percent margin, while non-union voters backed Romney, 52 percent to 48 percent—an 18-point swing. Among white working-class men, union members voted for Obama at a 54.5 percent rate while non-members gave the president just 27.5 percent of their votes—a monumental swing of 27 points. Among white working-class women, who gave Obama 62.5 percent of their vote if they were union members and just 35.5 percent if they weren’t, the swing was also 27 points.
But union efforts weren’t confined this year just to getting out the vote of their own members. For years, the AFL-CIO has been building its Working America program in such key swing states as Ohio, using door-to-door canvassers to enlist residents of largely white working-class neighborhoods who aren’t union members into the AFL-CIO’s political program. This year, Working America members—of whom there were nearly 2 million in Ohio—voted for Obama at the same rate as union members: 66 percent. As well, the Citizens United decision enabled unions to contact all voters, even without enlisting them in any program at all. In Ohio, while the AFL-CIO was focusing on swing white working-class voters, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) undertook a massive voter-registration and turnout program of its own among African-American and Latino voters. With more than 2,300 volunteers working full time during the last four days of the campaign, the SEIU helped raise the African-American share of the vote in Ohio from 11 percent in 2008 to 15 percent this year. Nationally, the SEIU-funded Mi Familia Vota employed 600 organizers to mobilize Latino voters across the Sunbelt. The rising number of pro-Obama Latino voters in such key regions as California’s Inland Empire (where the Democrats picked up two Congressional seats from the Republicans), central Florida (where Osceola County has gone from providing 54 percent of the vote to George W. Bush in 2004 to giving Obama 54 percent in 2008 and 62 percent this year), and Colorado testify to the success of SEIU’s Latino election programs.
The unions’ record on ballot measures this week was mixed. They won very big in California, where they not only defeated a Republican-backed measure that would have restricted their ability to deploy their treasuries in election campaigns, but, by virtue of their intense door-to-door get out the vote efforts, also helped pass a measure backed by Governor Jerry Brown that raised taxes on the rich to fund California’s schools, and contributed to down-ticket victories that produced four more Democratic congressional seats and two-thirds Democratic supermajorities (the level required to raise taxes) in both houses of the state legislature. (Indeed, labor’s victories in California this year recall the similar spillover effects of their successful 1958 campaign to defeat a “right-to-work” ballot measure, when their turnout effort also helped put a liberal Democrat—Pat Brown, Jerry’s father—in the governor’s office and turned the legislature Democratic for the first time in many years.)
Labor also suffered some defeats on Tuesday’s ballot measures, notably in Michigan, where a union-backed initiative to enshrine collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution went down to a thumping (58 percent to 42 percent) defeat. Comparing the fate of this measure to the success unions had last year in Ohio, persuading voters to repeal the suspension of public employee collective-bargaining rights enacted a few months earlier by the Republican legislature and governor, suggests that voters are uneasy at rewriting the social contract in either direction. Moreover, there’s ample evidence both from polling and election results that voters are more inclined to favor worker rights than union power, however contradictory that sentiment may seem.
On the whole, however, Tuesday was a very good day for America’s unions, which demonstrated yet again their power at the polls. How much that power will carry over to the battle brewing on the grand bargain—whether they can keep Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid intact – remains to be seen.
Harold Meyerson is a columnist for the Washington Post, a contributing editor for The American Prospect, and a Vice-Chair of Democratic Socialists of America.