The Only Precinct Walkers

America’s unions are campaigning for Joe Biden by phone, mail, and text—but not by talking face-to-face with voters. Except for the hotel workers.

BY HAROLD MEYERSON, Published in The American Prospect

OCTOBER 28, 2020

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UNITE HERE

Since August 1—the earliest that Las Vegas’s Local 226 has ever started its walks—the union has had more than 400 canvassers at work in Nevada.

“Towards the end of June,” says Maggie Acosta, who worked for a company that provided food to airlines until it shuttered its Phoenix operation earlier this year, “one of my sons came home very sick; he tested positive for COVID. No mother should have to hear her own child tell her, ‘Mom, I feel like I’m dying.’”

Fortunately, Acosta’s son recovered, but Acosta’s own exposure to the virus (as a cancer survivor, she’s particularly vulnerable) is a risk she now assumes every day. For eight hours daily since early August, she’s walked the sidewalks and knocked on doors all across Phoenix, where until recently, the thermometer has routinely hit 110 degrees. “It’s scary, in the middle of a pandemic,” Acosta admits. Nonetheless, she takes the risk because she’s determined that Arizona reject Donald Trump in next week’s election, because only through massive voter mobilization can Joe Biden carry the state. And she takes the risk because she’s a member of the one union that is not only phoning, texting, and mailing voters this year but also deploying many hundreds of its members in key swing states to engage in the kind of face-to-face conversations (wearing both masks and face shields) that have proven to be the most effective mode of voter interaction.

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KELLY CANDAELE

Maggie Acosta

Acosta’s union is UNITE HERE, whose members work in hotels, casinos, cafeterias, and airport eateries—when they’re up and running. No industries have taken a bigger hit, of course, and no union has seen more of its members rendered either furloughed or jobless. When the pandemic first struck, fully 98 percent of UNITE HERE members were laid off; today, according to union president D. Taylor, just 20 to 25 percent of the members are back at work, and many of them only part time. Of all the unions you’d expect would be compelled to curtail their usual political operations this year for sheer lack of resources (out-of-work members don’t pay dues), UNITE HERE heads the list.

And yet, in Arizona, Nevada, Florida, and Pennsylvania, UNITE HERE members are pounding the pavement. In many places, they’re among the few or even the only union activists to be going door-to-door.

But then, UNITE HERE is an unusual organization. Since a new, more militant generation rose to positions of leadership in the 1980s and ’90s, the union has routinely involved a disproportionately high share of its members in organizing campaigns, bargaining, and political action. When one alumnus of HERE became head of the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO in the mid-’90s (the union didn’t change its name to UNITE HERE until a decade later), he asked all of the Federation’s local unions to work shifts precinct walking or calling voters at election time, and ranked all 320 member locals by how many shifts their members worked. The L.A. hotel local—Local 11 of HERE—always ranked first or second.

Local 11 is Acosta’s local; it now represents workers in both L.A. and Arizona. Its tradition of member activism is one reason why it’s been able to mount a field campaign, but there are three other factors as well. First, because its members worked in hotels, Local 11 had already consulted with epidemiologists to develop safety protocols. “That put us ahead of the game in how to do a field campaign safely,” says Brendan Walsh, Local 11’s political director. Second, the union received contributions from other unions—including such relatively conservative unions as the Carpenters and the Operating Engineers—that enabled it to fund its field campaign, which it had done itself in previous elections. Third, in two of its targeted states, Nevada and Arizona, UNITE HERE’s operation had become the biggest game in town when it came to generating voter turnout. Culinary Local 226, which represents roughly 50,000 Las Vegas hotel workers, has been the linchpin of Nevada’s Democratic campaigns. Were it to disappear from Vegas sidewalks, the Biden-Harris ticket would lose much of its punch in a key swing state.

Instead, that punch is being delivered. By early this week, according to the union’s tally, its members had knocked on the doors of 375,000 Nevada households, 550,000 in Arizona, 320,000 in Florida, and 165,000 in Philadelphia, where efforts have been focused in Pennsylvania. That comes to about 1.4 million overall, a total the union hopes to boost to two million by the evening of November 3. Just in Arizona, says Walsh, the union plans to have knocked on 800,000 doors by then, “which is twice as many as anyone has ever done in this state.”

Because of the pandemic, more of the people who live behind those doors are at home and even willing to talk to the masked, shielded strangers who come knocking. In a normal year, UNITE HERE president Taylor says, only about 7 to 8 percent of the door knocks result in conversations; this year, that total is roughly 25 percent. Given the polarized nature of the electorate, however, not all the encounters go well. “We’ve had more guns pulled on us than ever before,” says Taylor.

Putting the firearms aside—and please do—the logistics of this year’s field campaigns are challenging. Normally, a team of canvassers piles as many into a car as it can hold and drives out to their designated precinct. This year, after team members hold their morning meeting, either by Zoom or socially distanced in person, they drive no more than two to a car to their walks. Every member has a temperature check before walking begins, and the union keeps physicians on call should any health issues or potentially dangerous exposures arise. (Indeed, the union’s operations are repeatedly assessed by epidemiologists.) Moreover, when residents do come to the door to talk, the canvasser provides them with masks before the conversation begins.

In a normal year, UNITE HERE president D. Taylor says, only about 7 to 8 percent of the door knocks result in conversations; this year, that total is roughly 25 percent.

Despite these obstacles, the union’s operation is bigger this year than it’s ever been. The Arizona campaign “had between 150 and 175 canvassers in 2018,” says Walsh. “Now, we have more than 300, more than half from Los Angeles, many of them laid-off hospitality workers” who also belong to the bi-state Local 11. Since August 1—the earliest that Las Vegas’s Local 226 has ever started its walks—the union has had more than 400 canvassers at work in Nevada, and the number in all three states and Philadelphia will rise substantially next weekend through Election Day.

In general, the canvassers knock on the doors of union members, Democrats, and potential voters without a party affiliation. Many of the neighborhoods they canvass include a large number of Spanish-speakers (everyone on Acosta’s Phoenix canvassing team is bilingual) and people of color, but the kind of neighborhoods being targeted vary from state to state. Half the Greater Phoenix neighborhoods that the Arizona teams canvass are suburban, says Walsh, since Democrat Kyrsten Sinema carried many such neighborhoods in her 2018 Senate race, and since those suburbs include swing-state Senate districts that could flip the partisan control of the state legislature. Other than Paradise Valley and Scottsdale—wealthy, conservative exurbs—“we don’t exclude any neighborhoods in Greater Phoenix,” Walsh says. In Vegas, says Carlos Padilla, a union veteran who’s a furloughed pastry chef at the Treasure Island hotel on the city’s famous Strip, “we’ve even canvassed in gated communities.” The encounters, he says, usually last between five and ten minutes.

Talks at the door usually begin the same way, says Padilla. “We stand back at least six feet from the door, identify ourselves, and ask the people what they think are the most important issues in the election.” The pandemic, health care, education, and jobs come up most frequently; canvassers can and do discuss each of those and more. If persuasion to vote for Biden is required, persuasion is offered.

Often, respondents say they need help with mail-in or early voting. “We explain the process to them,” says Renee Wilson, a Philadelphia hotel employee now leading a canvassing team in the city. “Some people are surprised they can do early voting right now. I tell them how I just did it. We don’t leave those doors until we’ve worked out a voting plan for the person.”

UNITE HERE’s voter outreach isn’t confined to precinct walks. Like most other unions, it also has mounted an ambitious phone contact campaign; its members in Puerto Rico are even calling their relatives in Florida to urge them to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket. On the sidewalks, though, UNITE HERE canvassers are still often the only progressive legions afoot. “When we went out in past elections,” says Acosta of the ground game in Phoenix, “we’d see many other organizations. This year, we’re often just about the only ones out there.”

That’s a concern for the union’s president. “I need to urge all labor unions,” says Taylor, “to get on the doors.”

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