ALBANY – National polls depict a tight presidential race, although not in New York. And that is how Hillary Clinton is getting some help in battleground states from some old political friends in the state: organized labor.
Large and varied unions, which helped Clinton win her U.S. Senate race in New York in 2000, are dispatching members and retirees to nearby states that are in play and will determine if Clinton or Donald Trump, her Republican rival, becomes the next president.
And they are setting up traditional and “virtual” phone banks to call union members elsewhere.
The union efforts began to step up last weekend, when 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, a local of the Service Employees International Union, dispatched members who work in hospitals, nursing homes and home care to at least two cities in Pennsylvania – Erie and Philadelphia – to knock on the doors of fellow union members there.
District Council 37, the biggest union of municipal workers in New York City, and the Civil Service Employees Association, the biggest union of state government workers, have both turned on their sophisticated phone banking operations – capable of making thousands of calls per hour to union members in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire.
One union is directing its Spanish-speaking members call the homes of Hispanic union members in Florida, another key state.
“We started (last) weekend and will go every weekend through Election Day,” Helen Schaub, director of policy and legislation at SEIU 1199, said of weekend bus and car pool trips.
Schaub said that the hospital and health care union members from Buffalo head to Erie, while Syracuse members go to Scranton, and downstate workers travel mostly to Philadelphia. In the case of SEIU 1199 members from the Albany and other upper Hudson Valley areas, their target is New Hampshire voters.
The unions are also involved in New York State political campaigns, especially in state legislative and congressional races, and they still will be doing work for Clinton in New York. But two things are freeing up the unions to be able to devote more time to help the Democrat in the key battleground states: her large lead in the Empire State over Trump and the even larger lead by Democratic U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a close ally of labor, over his Republican challenger Wendy Long.
While these unions ramp up their efforts for Clinton elsewhere, backers of Trump say spending so much time out of state may not be a smart move.
Despite recent polls showing Clinton with a large lead in New York, state GOP Chairman Ed Cox says he senses a sort of 1980 atmosphere. That was the year Ronald Reagan had a late surge and beat President Jimmy Carter in the blue state of New York.
“This is the kind of election where I think things are moving,” Cox said.
“The fact that they’re shipping out of state says Mrs. Clinton knows she’s in trouble,” Cox said of the union efforts. “This is a sign of worry.”
Moreover, the New York union efforts in other states could also lessen get-out-the-vote activities at home that will lead to a lower turnout in the Empire State than might be expected in a presidential year. That, he believes, could help down-ballot GOP candidates, such as those running to try to keep control of the State Senate.
“They may regret going to other states,” Cox said of the unions.
Member-to member cajoling
New York has the largest percentage of unionized workers in the nation, and they long have been known for being politically savvy.
They offer campaigns foot soldiers in both weeks leading up to elections and on Election Day, when calls are made to remind fellow union members to vote and rides are offered to polling places.
The labor groups are also stepping up use of “virtual phone banks,” which allow volunteers to sit in their own homes and tap into a software program to automatically call union members in other states identified as key voters.
An American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees leader said the District Council 37 is looking into Spanish-speaking members making phone calls to other states, just as they have in past elections.
And the unions are sending members door-to-door, canvassing select cities, neighborhoods and homes in the bordering states.
The organized labor volunteers give Clinton a cost-free advantage because the unions don’t directly coordinate efforts with her campaign, thus avoiding federal donation limits.
The unions offer a couple other advantages to Clinton.
First, they have the ability to adapt to changing priorities as subtle shifts are noticed in the closing weeks of the campaign.
“We do have flexibility for getting members and resources to the states that need support more than New York does at this point,” said Mario Cilento, president of the state American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Unions also can dispatch volunteers to other states without a lot of negative feedback. Union members from New York contacting fellow union members in Pennsylvania or Ohio or New Hampshire are not seen as carpetbaggers, Cilento said. They can appeal to union members in these other states on issues like collective bargaining, social and financial issues.
“It works because members can identify with a fellow member regardless of what state you’re from,” Cilento said. “They don’t identify us as a, ‘you’re a New Yorker, I’m not going to listen to you.’ We are all each other’s brothers and sisters.”
The efforts stretch across trades and professions in New York:
• 32BJ SEIU, which represents property service workers, including cleaners, doormen, food service workers and others at everywhere from Yankee Stadium and Broadway theaters to apartment buildings, is spreading word to its members to volunteer for Clinton in Pennsylvania.
“Like in election years past, Pennsylvania is a crucial state, and New York members are focused on doing what they can to ensure Hillary is elected,” said union spokeswoman Rachel Cohen. The group’s priorities are changes in immigration laws and a national $15 per hour minimum wage.
• The New York State United Teachers union has been coordinating with its national union for travel plans to swing states. Next week, members will staff phone banks to call unionized teachers in other states.
“We’ll definitely be both in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire,” said Andrew Pallotta, NYSUT’s executive vice president.
The union uses both its “daytime army” of retirees for weekday work and volunteers who are full-time teachers on weekends and nights.
• The Civil Service Employees Association, which represents state and local government workers and is the largest affiliate of the national AFSCME, already has phone call operations underway with outreach to AFSCME members in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Signs are already printed and road trips filled with buses of CSEA members going from Buffalo to Ohio and New York City to Pennsylvania are planned for October.
“It’s no surprise they want to do whatever they can to help elect (Clinton) president,” said Danny Donohue, the longtime CSEA president who was among the labor leaders to offer help early on to Clinton’s 2000 Senate race in New York.
The unions’ activities mirror efforts by Clinton’s own web outreach to enlist phone bank volunteers.
“Help Hillary win from home in just a few easy steps,” says her campaign website of the three steps to making calls to “priority voters” across the country. “We tell you exactly what to say – it couldn’t be easier!”
The unions also complement Clinton’s campaign field efforts, such as the recent opening of her Buffalo office. Among its chief duties: serving as a staging spot to get volunteers to Pennsylvania and Ohio in the coming weeks. The first was last weekend, said Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner. There has to be a fine line, he said, to meet federal campaign laws. In this case, the Clinton campaign is renting space in Buffalo from the local party, and the Clinton camp is arranging its own bus trips with local volunteers. The likely target for trips: Erie, Pa.
“In the past, the Erie County Democratic Party has adopted Erie, Pennsylvania as its home away from home,” he said of past presidential campaigns.
Experience the key
The ground game for presidential campaigns’ often includes inexperienced volunteers who may, or may not, stick with the time commitment.
But the New York labor operation offers motivated recruits who are experienced in neighborhood canvassing and telephone outreach.
“Over time, we’ve seen the field capacity of the Democratic Party get smaller, and I think organized labor still has the institutional capacity to mobilize members on political campaigns,” said Brian McDonald, AFSCME’s New York political director.
A typical day for a New York union member recruited for the presidential campaign might start with knocking on doors in Philadelphia by 10 a.m., typically on a Saturday.
In New Hampshire, the town targeted for canvassing might change depending on polling. The union asks the volunteers to do two shifts of four hours each.
Unions now are still in the “persuasion” part of the effort, identifying union members in other states who say they are strong Clinton supporters. When the effort morphs into the get-out-the-vote period, which kicks in within 10 days of Election Day, the union circles back to those voters several more times to make sure they vote.
“We have a membership that tends to be very politically active. They get it,” McDonald said of the 400,000 AFSCME members in New York.
One thing they get, he said, is the Supreme Court, which split 4-4 in a case that could have sharply hampered unions’ ability to raise money from members for collective bargaining activities. The union won the case because of a tie vote by a court down one member following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
“They understand how the presidential race’s outcome can affect them at the bargaining table,” McDonald said of his members.