Unions Getting Out the Vote for Kerry

Teamster Tom Curtin has called a West Virginia hotel room home since July, commuting when he can back to New Hampshire to see his wife and three kids.

Kim Rogers took leave in July from her UPS (search) job in South Charleston, also to devote her life temporarily to electing Democrat John Kerry (search).

They're among the thousands of union members who have flooded battleground states, knocking on doors, visiting work sites, mailing fliers and distributing T-shirts in labor's largest, most costly get-out-the-vote operation.

"Unions realize this is more important than ever before," Rogers said last week as she stuffed envelopes at Teamsters Local 175 hall with fliers and letters explaining why the union is supporting Kerry for president. Among its points: Kerry opposes President Bush's (search) overtime pay overhaul, has a plan to lower health care costs, has pledged to create 10 million new jobs and will try to slow overseas outsourcing.

"For Bush, outsourcing means maximizing corporate profits and taking care of the contributors who put him in office," the flier said.

The Teamsters effort, better coordinated and more high-tech than in the past, hopes to boost member turnout to 71 percent through phone banks, canvassing, debate parties and mailings and leaflets customized to members' interests, based on how they answered surveys.

Union membership nationwide has eroded to 12.9 percent of the work force. Labor compensates with political muscle: one in four voters in 2000 was from a union household, a share that's been rising. Al Gore won 59 percent of union household voters to Bush's 37 percent.

"We've always thought that whoever worked the hardest is going to win," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which deployed nearly 100 members full time to battleground states. "Labor has always gotten kudos for our ground game, but people haven't seen anything yet."

The AFL-CIO and its two largest unions have budgeted more than $150 million to turn out members and their families on Election Day. That does not include spending from the federation's other 58 unions and contributions to the Democrat-supported groups known as 527s, which also have been working to mobilize voters.

In West Virginia, with five electoral votes, union members are 13.1 percent of the work force. Bush beat Gore here by 6 percentage points and was only the fourth GOP presidential candidate to win the state since 1932. Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan all won as incumbents.

Teamsters Local 175 represents 7,600 drivers and warehouse workers. Counting retirees, it is the third-largest union in the state, behind the mine and steel workers' unions.

A color-coded chart hangs in Teamster Curtin's office, dotted with blue, green and orange stickers representing the number of contacts made and responses received at Teamsters work sites across the state. High-priority sites — those with large percentages of undecided members and swing voters — are the focus now.

Members who work at these businesses are getting even more visits and phone calls that talk up Kerry and more fliers and letters touting his positions on jobs, pensions, health care and taxes.

Democrats are hopeful. They outnumber registered Republicans by 2-1. The 2001 recession hit the state's steel mills, factories and mines hard, and people are worried about outsourcing and layoffs.

"I'm not happy with the way things are going," Crystal Williams, a Teamsters driver at the Rite Aid distribution center in Poca, 15 miles northwest of Charleston, said as she stopped her truck to grab a "Teamsters for Kerry-Edwards" T-shirt. She voted for Bush in 2000 but won't again. Job losses have hurt too many neighbors, she said.

The state is increasingly conservative on social issues, however. Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, has been a hard sell to some rank and file, especially on guns, a top issue for West Virginia voters. The Teamsters' local created a special flier: "John Kerry Supports Gun Rights." Kerry, in a photo, holds a rifle he got at a United Mine Workers rally in Racine.

A recent letter from the local's president warned members "not to be fooled by scare tactics" because "we would never support any candidate that supported taking away our right to hunt."

Curtin tries to avoid abortion, gay rights and other wedge political issues. He often tells members, "Maybe you should consider voting your job and lobbying your issues." He likes to remind them that Kerry has never crossed a picket line.

Teamster Rogers voted for Bush in 2000. After the terror attacks, "I would listen to him make speeches and thought he was very good; I was touched and would feel patriotic," Rogers said. But she said she learned more about his record from her union and realized "I'd been blinded."

That's what unions are trying to do: reach out to their members to give them information and hopefully to sway them. Labor's research shows that undecided and independent union voters move firmly into the Democratic column the more they hear from their unions.

What unions say matters greatly to some members.

"I support Kerry because he supports the Teamsters," said Chris Ford, stopping for a T-shirt as he walked into the UPS distribution center to start his shift. He'll read the flier later, he said, because he relies on the union to help stay informed.

UPS worker Oretha Jeffers is undecided, though. She is uneasy about Kerry's Vietnam War protests, especially one during which he threw his battle ribbons over a fence at the Capitol.

"When my four brothers and my uncle put their life on the line, they didn't throw their stuff away," Jeffers said.