Pro-Biden unions, many contending with the coronavirus, double down in campaign’s closing days

This presidential election is so important to Eric Brown that he’s not only telling his West Philadelphia neighbors and coworkers to vote, he’s walking with them to the mailbox to drop off their absentee ballots.

Brown, a security guard who supports former Vice President Joe Biden, has been helping his union, 32BJ Service Employees International Union, get out the vote since early September. While he also volunteered in 2016, the shop steward has been emboldened by his opposition to President Donald Trump. He’s concerned, he says, about the President’s lies and racism, and many of his neighbors are worried about the fate of the Affordable Care Act, which they depend on for their health coverage.

“Not voting for Black people is actually like giving up your voice,” said Brown, who is 33 and single. “What I tell people is that our ancestors worked so hard to vote and we must voice our concerns and vote for change. Voting does matter, even though some people think it doesn’t.”

Convincing someone to vote, now, is only a first step. The work of labor activists trying to turn out voters this year has been fraught following the onset of the coronavirus. While many states have sought to expand voting access by increasing mail-in options. Those changes have bred confusion.

Interviews with CNN revealed that labor leaders and rank-and-file election season volunteers are straining under the safety and economic hardships of the pandemic, which has forced them to adapt their tactics. Some are staying away from knocking on doors and turning to virtual organizing tools. Others, steeped in a culture of in-person canvassing, are adhering to time-consuming safety protocols that allow them to do their work while reducing the serious health risks.

But the stakes for national labor leaders are clear. A decades-old Republican push to disempower unions, a traditional base of support for Democrats, has succeeded in striking a series of blows at the state and federal level. Labor activists are engaging up and down the ballot, from the presidential race to battlegrounds that could determine whether Democrats flip the Senate or Republican maintain control.

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After hearing that many of his neighbors didn’t get their absentee ballots, Brown gave them the number for the local Board of Elections and then followed up to make sure they received it. He’s volunteered at the union’s tent at City Hall, helping people submit their ballots correctly, putting one envelope inside the other. And he joined fellow essential workers at a rally in North Philadelphia on Saturday, all wearing masks and passing out fliers to push for the Biden-Harris ticket.

“A lot of people say they are going to vote, but I want to make sure,” said Brown, adding that many of his neighbors are elderly and worried about the health risks of voting in-person. “They don’t know where the mailboxes are so I actually walk them to the mailbox and actually walk them to City Hall to drop off their ballot, too.”

A whole new ground game

More than 2,000 miles away, in Las Vegas, 34-year-old Joleen Reyes has been putting in eight and nine-hour shifts canvassing with the influential Culinary Workers Union, which has endorsed Biden. A member since 2012, Reyes comes from a union household. She works at The Cosmopolitan; her mother, who retired last year, spent two decades at Mandalay Bay.

This year, she has knocked on doors not only through midday desert heat, but also through the stench of smoke, drifting in from the west, when wildfires scorched swaths of California. The days begin at around 11 a.m., when canvassers — more than 400 of them now from the Culinary Union and its national umbrella, UNITE HERE — get their lists of doors, and last until around 7 p.m.

But the tools of this trade have changed.

Canvassers like Reyes wear face masks. They go out in pairs but walk on opposite sides of the street. They’re offered hand sanitizer and gloves, but some people ditched the latter because they make their hands sweaty and cause them to drop the tablets they carry. When canvassers reach a door, they knock and then take a few steps back. If the person who opens up wants to speak, they’ll either be asked to grab a mask or offered one — which, if requested, is delivered with tongs. It’s a process, the union said, that has now been repeated at more than 382,00 doors.

After all that, the conversation can begin. At this point in the campaign, Reyes said, there’s not much persuading to do.

“A lot of people have made their minds up,” she said. “So the only questions we’re getting are ‘where’s the early voting post?’ ‘If I can go in and get it done right away?’ And that’s pretty much it. As far as the candidates, they’ll ask me my opinion and stuff, but other than that, it’s just been mainly ‘where can I go vote,’ ‘how fast is it’ and ‘what day does it start on?’ “

An even bigger shift is underway at the Communication Workers of America, which represents 700,000 people in the private and public sectors. It has dropped its past practice of having volunteer members call everyone in their local but not record the results.

Instead, after polling showed that voters were not likely to change their minds, no matter whom the union endorsed, the CWA decided this year to reach out to a narrower list of members.

The aim is to convince the group of persuadable members and loyal Biden supporters to vote for Democrats in seven battlegrounds and nine US Senate races, said Margarita Hernandez, the union’s legislative and political field coordinator.

CWA organizers are closely monitoring the results, too, providing callers with different scripts depending on where in the voting process the members are — whether they have requested a ballot, whether they plan to vote early, or whether they’ve actually cast their ballots. The callers then follow up, repeatedly, and don’t remove members from the list until state records show that they have actually voted.

The union is also using technology to make virtual phone banking more fun. An organizer, for instance, will gather members on Zoom for a two-hour session. The group will stay online while they go through their list, excitedly reporting their successes in the chat, Hernandez said.

The CWA began training state leaders around the nation in June, working with the Grassroots Policy Project to educate them about what the pandemic and economic crises mean for workers. The social justice protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis on Memorial Day added to the urgency of the moment.

“We read about history — the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement and all of that,” Hernandez said. “We really wanted folks to feel like we’re actually in one of those moments right now. We are in this moment where things can go one way or the other.”

Three unions that are backing the President, including the Fraternal Order of Police, did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

The SEIU, which is made up largely of essential workers who have worked on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak, has left it up to local leaders whether to go door-to-door, said Mary Kay Henry, the international president of the two-million member union of health care, property services and public sector workers. A bilingual effort is underway in parts of the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin.

Members have already knocked on well over 1 million doors and expect to hit hundreds of thousands more before Election Day. They have also sent 50 million text messages and made 42 million phone calls.

Some in the union have also gotten creative amid the pandemic. In Miami, one group participated in a caravan of cars covered with “Todos Con Biden” signs and radios all turned to the same station, passing out leaflets as they drove through town.

The union is also drawing upon its essential workers to push for Biden, who leadership feels will do a better job tackling the coronavirus.

Though she grew up in a family of Republicans, Miami resident Laura Rivas is strongly backing Biden and letting her social network know. An intensive care unit nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, the SEIU member has had to contend with the surges of sick patients and the mixed messages from local and national Republican leaders that she felt exacerbated the outbreak.

“We need a better leader in office,” said Rivas, 44, who participated in a roundtable discussion with Jill Biden and other SEIU health care workers earlier in the month. “That’s why I got involved.”

The desire to defeat Trump and a yearning to connect with voters is what launched Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and allies on a month-long bus trip, criss-crossing the country to get out the vote for Biden.

The nationwide tour has brought socially distanced rallies, with the union — which has been lobbying for resources for teachers thrust back into the classroom with little federal guidance — mandating masks and social distancing, and in some cases providing personal protective equipment, to 15 states.

“If you look at any of the Facebook Live events, we always wash off the podium. We always wash off and use different microphones. We’re always wearing masks,” Weingarten said over the phone from Scranton, Pennsylvania. “I’ve never spoken so much in masks.”

The unusual circumstances, she added, injected a sort of giddiness into the events. The common thread — meeting voters, and voters seeing each other, once again. In real life.

“People are joyful about being together and about being engaged in this way and seeing each other. And you see a longing for normalcy again and a longing for being social. The social isolation has really hurt people,” Weingarten said. “That is, in some ways, some of the most angering things about the President’s failures here tackling the virus and then denying that (cases are) going up again.”

A battle on multiple fronts

The massive job losses caused by the coronavirus have stretched the unions, which count on the sum of the funds generated by members’ dues to pay for political work, to a breaking point. Historically high unemployment combined with the absence of any payroll aid from Capitol Hill has workers in a range of sectors scrambling to pay bills — and less likely to be able to volunteer their time for get out the vote activities.

Further complicating the task at hand is the reality that many unions are now fighting battles on multiple fronts — not only in the presidential race and Senate contests, but in a campaign of sorts to keep alive the dwindling prospects of a big-ticket stimulus deal.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents some 50,000 flight attendants, said her membership has put the screws to endangered Republican incumbents in Colorado and North Carolina, as they try to leverage support for a package.

But the prospect of more aggressive electoral work, as the union might have imagined it earlier this year, has been effectively ruled out by the pandemic. The odd phone banking session aside, the union’s capacity for traditional canvassing and rallies has been diminished.

“We’ve been fully focused on trying to save jobs,” Nelson said. “Half of my members don’t have jobs or health care right now. That is job number one for a union.”

The flight attendants union did not formally endorse Biden until Tuesday afternoon — and even then, did so with a low-key announcement amid concerns that the Trump administration would seek retribution by punishing the industry in future stimulus talks. Nelson believes that the President, by singling out the airline industry as worthy of additional payroll aid after he blew up negotiations earlier this month, was trying to fracture the coalition pushing for a deal.

Still, she told CNN that Biden’s potential election represented only an opportunity for unions — not a victory in its own right.

“I think that we have a responsibility to build up the labor movement and actually have the ground game that gives us the ability to get the priorities that the Vice President has set during this campaign accomplished,” Nelson said. “Because those are all really nice things that he said he’s going to do. And even some things that people would like to push them farther on. But we’re not going to get all that accomplished if we don’t have a living and breathing labor movement pushing and making it happen.”