Swinging Votes in Missouri (in print)


The struggle to defeat Bush is a 'fight for the future.' That is according to the 1.6 million members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). SEIU is one of the largest, most militant unions in the country. Its national and local leadership is dedicated to organizing the unorganized, increasing rank and file participation, electing local, progressive, pro-labor candidates and ousting Bush in November.

Needless to say, SEIU can have a major impact on the outcome of this year’s elections, especially in Missouri, one of the key battleground states. Voters in Missouri could decide the fate of our nation. Only one president in our history has been elected without winning Missouri’s electoral votes. In 2000, Missouri went to Bush.
While SEIU’s goal of defeating Bush may be national in scope, its strategy in Missouri is uniquely geared towards Midwest voters. In Missouri, like the rest of the nation, many factors will determine the outcome of the presidential elections. But, unlike other parts of the country, issues, not candidates, will play an especially important role. While slogans, like 'Anybody But Bush!' may turnout votes in other states, in Missouri this isn’t the case. In fact, the Bush campaign will promote divisions among workers in order to win union votes.

The 'swing' vote will be a decisive factor in Missouri. By focusing on issues like health care costs, job loss, state budget cuts, health care facility closures and layoffs, SEIU may be able to 'swing' members who otherwise would vote Republican and create more interest among members who have become apathetic.

While the right-wing Bush administration, bought and sold by corporations, will outspend organized labor ten-to-one, they won’t be able to mobilize people and hit the streets with the same capacity. Knocking on doors, making phone calls, registering voters and staffing the polls takes a lot of people. In many ways the outcome of this election depends on organized labor’s ability to turnout its members and mobilize coalition partners to turnout theirs. The work may be long and the hard, but SEIU has a spirited and exciting plan that will help it reach much further than its membership.

Show me SEIU

SEIU has roughly 14,000 members in the 'show me' state. The largest membership base is in the janitorial building services sector. SEIU represents around 6,000 of these workers who are predominantly African American and geographically located in St. Louis and Kansas City, the two largest urban areas in the state. These areas traditionally vote Democratic.

St. Louis and Kansas City have high union density and active left-labor coalitions. SEIU works with many of these coalitions and organizations, like Jobs with Justice (JWJ), Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, Americans Coming Together (ACT), Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), NARAL, Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood among many others. The focus among SEIU members in St. Louis and Kansas City is registration and voter turnout. Most members in these two cities will vote against Bush – if they turnout.

SEIU also represents around 4,000 state employees, probation and parole officers and health care professionals. Geographically located in rural Missouri, these members are predominantly white and their politics are moderate-centrist to conservative.

SEIU began an issue-based, educational campaign directed toward these members last fall. Highlighting the issues that most immediately affect Missouri’s voters – health care costs, job loss, state budget cuts, health care facility closures and layoffs – is a top priority for the union. SEIU members have to understand that these hardships are tied to the Bush administration. If they don’t, many of these rural members, like most rural Missourians, will vote Republican.

'Swinging' these voters will be a very difficult challenge. Rural Missouri has low union density and an active anti-choice, pro-gun movement that attracts many rural SEIU members. Some belong to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and others belong to anti-choice organizations. Complicating matters even more is the fact that many of these members grudgingly joined SEIU and believe the union hasn’t delivered pay raises or job security. Any efforts to 'swing' these voters will have to focus on the most immediate economic and fiscal issues. SEIU will also have to explain that a defeat for Bush will set the stage for organizing victories in the future, enabling SEIU to fight more effectively for state employees’ interests down the road. Efforts to deal with abortion or gun issues with rural SEIU members will probably backfire. Consequently, most of SEIU’s election literature and educational material has not dealt with these subjects. Keeping these issues from wedging themselves between the union and its members is key to a unified SEIU vote. The Bush campaign will sidestep the immediate economic hardships and provoke disunity with wedge issues like gun control.

The remaining SEIU membership base, health care workers, nursing home employees and others, are predominantly African American and urban and tend to vote Democratic.

Technology Aids

One of SEIU’s main tools in its issue-based, educational campaign is the Predictive Dialer System (PDS). The PDS enables SEIU and its coalition partners, like JWJ and Planned Parenthood, to call membership lists, talk to members, leave messages, fundraise, do turnout, conduct polls and transfer calls to politician’s offices. With 48 phone lines attached to one computer system, the PDS can dial over 4,000 phone numbers an hour. Originally designed for telemarketing use, the PDS can also record credit card information, enabling unions and other organization to collect contributions to their campaigns.

One of the PDS’s most useful features is its ability to record and 'blast' messages to thousands of members quickly, enabling members to hear messages from union leaders, community organizers or religious leaders, asking them to attend rallies, come to union meetings or learn about recent contract negotiations. The PDS can connect members by phone directly to state representatives’ offices, allowing SEIU and coalition partners to leave hundreds of messages.

In order to educate members on issues like health care, education, state budget cuts, facility closures and layoffs, unions have to reach out in many different ways. They have to do mailings, canvass, conduct house visits, hold rallies and make many, many phone calls. In many ways repetition is the name of the game.

Member Mobilization

SEIU members in Missouri are in a unique position to make a real impact on the future of our country. By November, at least 2,000 SEIU activist members from around the country will take leave from their jobs to do election work in the battleground states. Many SEIU contracts include language that allows union members to leave their jobs to do union work for extended periods of time. While the number of members able to do this kind of work and the amount of time each member spends in the field varies, SEIU’s initiative is impressive.

SEIU calls these activists Heroes. While many of the Heroes are from the east and west coasts, many others are also from the battleground states. The first wave of Heroes came to Missouri in April. By September SEIU is expected to have over 150 SEIU members from across the country with an additional 150 local SEIU members, knocking on doors, making phone calls, registering voters and staffing polls in the state.

Heroes identify, train and organize volunteers, meet with community leaders, coordinate voter registration and get-out-the vote campaigns and organize rallies. They also build for SEIU’s future. Heroes have been plugged into local organizing campaigns, speaking to would-be members about the benefits of joining a union. They are also building leadership in facilities that are already union and encouraging members to be more involved. Heroes also sign members up for the union’s Committee on Political Education (COPE), work with local AFL-CIO chapters and Central Labor Councils and work with different coalition partners to educate and turnout their members.

Fight For the Future SEIU has labeled the struggle to defeat Bush the 'fight for the future.' In many ways the outcome of this year’s presidential election will determine the future of our country for many years to come. Another four years of Bush will have dire consequences for the entire labor movement. SEIU understands this and is acting accordingly.

By focusing on health care, job loss, state budget cuts, facility closures, attacks on overtime, layoffs and other issues that unite SEIU members, SEIU has paved the way for success during the elections cycle. By enlisting the aid of over 2,000 members nationally, SEIU has laid the groundwork for a growth in rank and file participation and leadership and has built the structure for future goals of organizing the unorganized. By working with local, pro-labor politicians and coalition partners, SEIU has broadened labor’s influence into fields not traditionally seen as labor related, influencing scores of people outside of its ranks. And by utilizing the most recent technology to mobilize and educate members, SEIU has set an example for the rest of organized labor to follow.

SEIU is helping to organize what we all hope will be the decisive blow against the Bush administration.

--Tony Pecinovsky is an organizer in St. Louis, Missouri.