The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, September 06, 2013

Members-as-politicians could help organized labor get its mojo back

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

DETROIT – Politically, Michigan’s labor movement could use a plan to get out of the wilderness.

The state capitol has become a veritable petri dish of anti-union legislation created by conservative politicians in Lansing, topped off by the passage a statewide right-to-work law last December. The labor movement in Michigan is at an historic low point in numbers, political influence and likely, self-confidence.

So are there any statewide models Michigan’s unions could pattern themselves after to restore the withered political power of working people? You there, raising your hand in New Jersey…you think you have something that could restore labor’s muscle in Michigan?

“You in Michigan are where we were at in New Jersey 18 or 20 years ago; we were at rock bottom,” said New Jersey AFL-CIO President Charlie Wowkanech, speaking to delegates to the 50th conference of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council last month. “But we decided to change the dynamic.”

The political scene changed, Wowkanech said, when organized labor in New Jersey made a concerted, systematic effort, including the use of extensive public database records and voter information, to get union members engaged in getting fellow union members elected to office. “The power of this is incredible,” he said. “We’re anxious for other states to get involved. Don’t wait, get in the game. You can do this.”

Wowkanech, who hails from the Operating Engineers, has been president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO since 1997. He was invited to the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council’s conference to share strategies for why organized labor in New Jersey leads all states in union household voting share  – 38 percent in 2012 (vs. Michigan’s 18 percent). That labor influence has led to a system of union candidate recruitment and support, and a 74 percent win ratio for labor-backed candidates in the last 18 years. The result: legislative attacks on labor, on a local basis and statewide in New Jersey, are almost nonexistent.

“The chairman of the state Senate in New Jersey is an IBEW member,” Wowkanech said. “No bills get posted without going through him. It’s a beautiful thing.”

The New Jersey AFL-CIO’s blueprint to get labor union members elected into a broad swath of public offices in the Garden State is a simple one. The initial tasks involved in winning any given election don’t even involve finding the right candidate. Job one is targeting and research: what cities or townships or other jurisdictions are good candidates to have a union member run for office? This is largely determined by the electoral and economic makeup of the area and examining whether there are enough union members/family members living in those jurisdictions who could provide a winning margin for a union candidate.

Then a database needs to be created and updated. How many union members live in that jurisdiction? How many of them are registered to vote? If they aren’t registered, they should be urged to register.

The next step is to find a union candidate willing to run for office, which isn’t as difficult as it may seem after years of success stories New Jersey. “Now we’re getting calls from people we have to turn away,” Wowkanech said.

Candidates are recruited to run for a gamut of offices, including school boards, city councils, county commissions, community college trustees or even for state house or senate seats. During the election, the labor movement helps candidates with issue education, what to expect on the campaign trail, as well as get-out-the-vote efforts. A consensus of labor union members make decisions on how best to help candidates in various races.

Wowkanech used the city of Neptune, N.J. as an example where the numbers worked to elect a union candidate in a recent council election. The city had 17,913 registered voters. History showed the expected voter turnout would be 35 percent, or 6,270 voters, with 3,136 votes needed to win. There were 1,164 registered union voters living in Neptune, plus 1,055 additional union household voters identified, for a total of 2,219 union votes. An additional 917 votes would need to be found to get the union candidate elected – and they didn’t even count 418 unregistered union members living in Neptune.

“We looked at the numbers,” he said, and in the election, the union candidate “blew them away.” Labor union members of all stripes were contacted and asked to vote for the union candidate.

The New Jersey AFL-CIO won’t throw resources behind every union candidate. Sometimes the numbers, as they did in Neptune, show that a union candidate has a good chance of winning. Other times, the demographic numbers show the union candidate will have a difficult time. “We have limited finances,” Wowkanech said. “We can’t take on races that are going to be losers.”

Of course, all union members won’t vote, or vote for a union candidate. But all of an opponent’s potential supporters won’t vote either, and there will be voters who cast a ballot for a candidate because of party affiliation or some other reason. But voter histories and election results in New Jersey are showing that union voters and their households are tipping the scales and making victors out of union candidates.

The union connection is a powerful one at the ballot box, Wowkanech said. “What makes this work, is that when union members are running, unions get engaged,” and union members are apt to vote for fellow union members.  “Why wouldn’t you invest in your own members?”

With the nation being so hyper-partisan, the 600-lb. gorilla in the room is: what if the only, or best candidate to run for office is a Republican? In Michigan, Republican lawmakers have made enemies with organized labor by adopting a right-to-work law, attempting to repeal project labor agreements and have taken myriad other actions to neuter unions.

Ultimately, Wowkanech said that the political affiliation of the candidates don’t matter. Union members who run for office as Republicans and win, tend to remember who put them in office. “We run our union members as Republicans too,” he said. “We’re not here to build the Democratic Party. We’re here to build the labor movement.”

He acknowledged that when they win office, Republican union candidates often get pressure from fellow GOP lawmakers to vote against union interests.  “It’s not a perfect system, but union people know what’s right and what’s wrong. He knows if Republicans threaten him, we have his back.”

He added: “Instead of sending all our money to Democrats, why not invest in our own candidates?”