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COVID-19 tests unions’ ability to deliver votes, manpower, money to Democrats

Pandemic upends unions’ door-to-door get-out-the-vote effort

Unions helped Democrats take top Nevada elected positions in 2018. Sen. Jacky Rosen, shown here campaigning before the pandemic erupted early this year, was among those who benefited from union efforts that will be disrupted by COVID-19 this fall.
Unions helped Democrats take top Nevada elected positions in 2018. Sen. Jacky Rosen, shown here campaigning before the pandemic erupted early this year, was among those who benefited from union efforts that will be disrupted by COVID-19 this fall. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As president of Unite Here International, Donald “D.” Taylor watched helplessly as the coronavirus outbreak put 98 percent of his union out of work.

Before the pandemic, Unite Here was growing by leaps and bounds, and its political clout with it. The union’s Nevada chapter parlayed its 60,000 casino workers into a hot streak of Democratic electoral wins in recent years, taking control of the governor’s mansion and the state Legislature, plus a pair of U.S. senators.

But with 80 percent of his 307,000 members in the hard-hit hospitality and entertainment sectors still out of work and not paying dues, Taylor had to lay off organizers and force early retirements — cuts that local chapters have emulated.

Despite the pandemic and the economic suffering it has caused, Taylor said Unite Here’s members will turn out in force to deliver votes this year because they see President Donald Trump’s reelection as an existential threat.

“They’re quite worried about their union, about their livelihoods, their families and the future of the country,” he said.

Unions’ strength amid the epidemic will be tested this fall. Democrats rely heavily on labor’s political support every November. That’s no different this year, but the coronavirus is. Laid-off workers don’t pay union dues, meaning the pandemic may cut into organized labor’s electoral spending. More worrisome for Democrats, COVID-19 could kneecap unions’ most potent campaign contribution: legions of door-knocking volunteers.

Uniting for Democrats

Unions influence elections in three main ways: members’ votes, manpower and money.

First, it’s persuading members to vote for the union’s endorsed candidates. That usually happens face to face: at the workplace, at the union hall or over a post-shift beer. But COVID-19 put the kibosh on that. So, instead, unions are relying on phone calls, texts and more mailers to convince members to vote the labor line.

There are 14.6 million union members in the U.S., and they tend to vote at higher rates than the general public. While 60 percent of U.S. adults voted in 2016, according to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, 73 percent of her union’s 1.3 million members cast a ballot in 2016.

More importantly, unions provide manpower. Usually, organizers shift from arranging union elections to winning political ones, and rank-and-file members sign up in droves for door-knocking operations.

But the pandemic forced unions to cut staff, and health concerns are forcing members to do get-out-the-vote work from home.

The National Education Association, which represents around 3 million teachers, has shifted its operations online, replacing door-knocking with peer-to-peer texting campaigns, social media outreach and phone-banking. That has increased the breadth of the union’s outreach efforts, said Carrie Pugh, NEA’s political director.

“For example, we had over 300 educators talking to voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and they had over 3 million contacts just in the summer alone,” she said.

While unions have stepped up online campaign capabilities in recent years, going nearly all virtual was no one’s plan at the start of 2020. Operatives believe in-person campaigning pays bigger dividends than online and telephonic contacts.

“Door-to-door is the best way to motivate people to go vote who might not otherwise,” said Bob Creamer, a political strategist at Democracy Partners.

But because of COVID-19, America’s largest trade federation won’t be knocking on many doors this year, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said during a virtual news conference organized by The Christian Science Monitor last week.

Trumka admitted his worries over the move to a mostly digital get-out-the-vote effort.

“Anytime you have to do things differently, you obviously have concerns. And this is a completely different game plan that we’re running,” he said. “We’re hoping that there’s no gaps.”

Some unions will still try to talk to voters face to face. Unite Here plans to get into the field soon.

“Our bread and butter is going door to door, so that’s a bit more challenging,” said Taylor.

Unite Here developed COVID-19 safety protocols for its door-to-door operations and plans to deploy them heavily in Nevada, Arizona and Florida, three states seen as up for grabs in November.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776 has two dozen members taking sabbaticals from their regular jobs and working full time in the field. For now, they’re sticking to remote voter contact in lieu of door-knocking and workplace visits, but UFCW Local President Wendell Young IV said that might change. The local’s 35,000 members are based primarily in Pennsylvania, a critical battleground state.

AFT has also shifted most of its operations online, but Weingarten said she will energize union voters and would-be campaign volunteers with a cross-country bus tour in October. “Instead of big gatherings, we’ll do small gatherings,” she said, to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Union spending

While unions spend hundreds of millions of dollars on elections, their financial contributions are secondary to get-out-the-vote efforts and less than other special-interest dollars. According to the Federal Election Commission, in the two years before the 2016 elections, labor-affiliated political action committees spent $331.5 million — about 14 percent less than the $385.7 million spent by corporate PACs and a fraction of the $4 billion in total PAC spending that cycle.

As layoffs mounted during the pandemic, unions have felt the financial pinch from both ends. Laid-off workers don’t pay dues, and unions have stepped up spending on things like personal protective equipment. That leaves less money for campaign donations and independent expenditures.

“We’re trying to fundraise, because the kind of resources we had previously, we don’t have,” said Unite Here’s Taylor.

Other unions have weathered the pandemic better financially and still plan to spend heavily on this year’s elections.

Young expects the coronavirus to take $1 million out of UFCW Local 1776’s $21 million budget. The rainy-day fund can cover that, so there have been no staff layoffs or cutting back on campaign expenditures. Young still expects to spend around half a million dollars campaigning this year.

AFT’s affiliates, including the union’s PAC, expect to spend more than in 2016, when they dropped $7.7 million in independent expenditures plus $16.5 million in campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The group’s data also shows that AFT’s PAC raised $11.6 million as of July 31, nearly equaling the $11.8 million it raised in the 2016 cycle.

The Service Employees International Union told journalists in February that it would spend $150 million campaigning this year, far above the $70 million it spent in the 2016 cycle. Asked to confirm whether it would stick to that pledge despite the coronavirus outbreak, SEIU provided a statement that didn’t answer the question.

“More SEIU members than ever are contributing to our 2020 political program, because they know one way we build power for workers is by electing pro-worker leaders to office,” national political director Maria Peralta wrote.

Creamer said labor campaign spending won’t decline as much as dues have and members’ motivation will outmatch any decline in spending.

“My sense is the labor movement feels very strongly that everything’s on the line here,” he said. “I think you’re going to see more union participation, at all levels, than we did in 2016.”