Organized labor is betting that undecided and swing union household voters in battleground states will help oust President Bush in November.
The AFL-CIO (search) is putting unprecedented emphasis on those voters in hopes that constant contact and communication from their unions will bring them firmly into the Democratic fold for presumptive nominee John Kerry (search).
"Our program is more sophisticated," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney (search) said after labor leaders approved mobilization plans Wednesday at this seaside resort. "We can more accurately identify the undecided voters among our ranks, and plan to make a special new effort to make sure they get educated about where the candidates stand on issues like overtime, jobs and education."
Previous election efforts focused on registering and turning out new union voters. But AFL-CIO polling shows that Bush holds a contingent of support among union members and labor leaders want to pry that loose.
Their research shows that continuous communication with those union swing voters can move them 10 to 15 percentage points in polls on attitudes about candidates and issues, said Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director.
For example, when Saddam Hussein was captured in November, it boosted Bush's poll ratings. But the AFL-CIO found that swing voters who had received mailings, fliers and phone calls from their unions did not give Bush more favorable marks.
The AFL-CIO will spend a record $44 million on get-out-the-vote efforts, concentrating heavily on battleground states. Florida, Ohio and Missouri top the list.
"People are fed up with this administration's inability to create good jobs and get our country back on track," Sweeney said. "They are demanding a change and we plan to give it to them."
Union leaders approved a hike in the assessments they pay to the AFL-CIO to help fund the $44 million effort, which does not include money the affiliates will spend individually on their own programs. The 64 unions agreed to pay 48 cents per member.
"This is the most important election indeed in our lifetime," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the AFL-CIO's political chairman.
Labor's strength in the workplace has been plummeting, but union members have remained reliable voters for Democrats. One in four voters in the 2000 election was from a union household. That year, the AFL-CIO spent about $41 million to mobilize its 13 million members and their families.
Overall, organized labor funneled $90 million into the 2000 election, and followed with almost $97 million in 2002, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations. Bush expects to raise at least $170 million for his re-election bid.
For most unions, Kerry was not the first choice for the Democratic nominee. But labor has rallied behind Kerry, united by a visceral dislike of the Bush White House.
"We're moving forward unified in purpose, I believe, as never before," said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, one of two unions that endorsed Kerry when his campaign was on the rocks last fall.
Dick Gephardt, who dropped out of the race after losing Iowa despite support from nearly two dozen unions, spoke to union leaders Wednesday afternoon. Some of Gephardt's union supporters are making a big push for Kerry to pick the Missouri congressman as his running mate.