Labor 2000: Unprecedented Grassroots Power

People-Powered Politics: TEMPO 802

Volume CI, No. 1January, 2001

Susan Borenstein, Field Representative, AFL-CIO

Working men and women mobilized through their unions at an unprecedented level in the AFL-CIO’s most ambitious political program to date: Labor 2000. Union members registered more people to vote (2.3 million union households were added to voter rolls); educated more people on the candidates’ positions (they made 8 million personal phone calls to educate union members about the candidates and sent out 12 million pieces of mail – and this figure doesn’t include mail sent out by local unions); and mobilized a bigger Get-Out-The-Vote effort than ever before, through the efforts of 1,000 labor field coordinators.

The months-long nationwide effort resulted in resounding defeats of anti-worker ballot initiatives in California, Oregon and Michigan, and the election of such labor-endorsed candidates as California’s Dan Schiff to the U.S. House of Representatives and Hillary Rodham Clinton to the U.S. Senate.

Large corporations outspent unions 15 to 1, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. A post-election survey by the AFL-CIO found that 69 percent of union members agree that unions need to counter such corporate influence by investing time and money in politics.

Moreover, union members believe that the two most important presidential qualities are that the candidate is “on the side of working families” (49 percent) and that the candidate “supports unions and union members” (38 percent). Working men and women acted on their beliefs in this election. Labor’s grassroots efforts made the difference, and the results in New York and around the country speak for themselves.

Union members voted 63 percent for Al Gore, 32 percent for George Bush, 3 percent for Ralph Nader and 2 percent for others. They supported a working families’ agenda, including universal health care coverage for children, the right of unions to organize, an increase in the minimum wage, more money for education and school construction, Medicare prescription drug coverage, safeguarding Social Security, and an HMO patient bill of rights.


As part of the AFL-CIO’s “2000 in 2000” program, 901 union members ran for political office this year – 309 of whom were running for the first time and may add to the 2,141 union members currently holding office. The AFL-CIO has already exceeded its goal of identifying, training, and recruiting 2,000 union members to run for office in the 2000 election cycle to strengthen the voice of working families.

Union members are running for political office because they recognize that most legislators are not like them. More than one-quarter of the members of Congress are millionaires, and too few are women or people of color. By running for local office, union members are not only changing power dynamics in their communities, but are gaining valuable leadership skills that can carry them to higher office in the future.

In New York State Labor 2000’s effort to elect Hillary Clinton and other labor-endorsed candidates was coordinated by New York State AFL-CIO Political Director Suzy Ballantyne. It was the most extensive Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) effort in the state federation’s history, and the best organized ever. 20,000 union members statewide were on the streets on Election Day alone. In New York City the Central Labor Council put 17,000 union members on the streets, with more than 25,000 members participating the week before.

In New York State union households voted 63-35 percent for Hillary Clinton and 68-28 percent for Al Gore, compared to the votes cast by non-union members, which went 51-43 percent for Hillary and 57-39 percent for Gore. That amounted to a 12-point advantage for Hillary and an 11-point advantage for Gore.

In the 2nd Congressional District, labor-endorsed candidate Steve Israel, who ran for the seat vacated by Republican Senatorial candidate Rick Lazio, won 48 percent to 34 percent, and Congressmembers Maurice Hinchey and Carolyn McCarthy handily won reelection. In the New State Assembly all but one labor-endorsed candidate won election. Union households accounted for 39 percent of all voters in New York. That is, two out of every five voters on Nov. 7 were either union members or members of a union household.

Labor’s unprecedented grassroots power was evident in city after city across the country, as union members turned on “street heat” for maximum impact. In Pennsylvania, union members made over 600,000 phone calls – making 20,000 a day in the week before the election. In California an article in the Los Angeles Times noted, “Painters’ apprentices whipped around Burbank on Razor scooters, hanging slate cards on doors of union voters. Immigrant drywall workers walked precincts in Venice. Teachers capped a day in the classroom with a few hours of phone calls.”

More than 20 presidents and top officers of unions boarded buses that rolled through 25 cities in six states in the final weeks of the campaign to energize and mobilize hundreds of thousands union members to vote. The tours visited Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Washington, West Virginia and Oregon.

And a Texas Truth Squad tour took Texas union members coast to coast to describe the impact that George W. Bush’s term as governor has had on working families. The Texas squad, composed of a teacher, a prison guard, a sheet metal worker and a retired service worker, made more than two dozen stops, including New York City, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Philadelphia, Louisville, Atlanta, Albuquerque, Kansas City, Hartford, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

According to Ed Ott, Director of Public Policy for the NYC Central Labor Council and Labor 2000 Coordinator in New York City, “there was an unprecedented level of political unity among the unions in this election. There was a clear notion on the part of the labor movement that political participation needed to be built independently of the political parties: independence based on the issues and needs of organized labor.”

Where do we go from here? Labor 2002. It appears that the composition of the Senate will be 50:50. We need to make more gains in both the Senate and House of Representatives, a “warrior project” of year-round agitation. We need to repeal “right to work” laws which make it difficult to organize new union members in a number of states, and to forge a bond between politics and union organizing. We need to elect 1,000 more union members to political office.

And finally, we need increased labor participation in city and statewide races. In New York State there will be a hotly contested gubernatorial race and in New City more than two-thirds of city council seats will change hands this year. Last March, the Washington Post wrote, “Organized labor’s steady march back to political influence began in the 1996 elections and gained speed in 1998. This year could be better still.” You bet it was!