Pandemic likely to alter unions’ political push, but how? 

By Bill MooreSpecial to The Union Advocate 

COVID-19 is disrupting life as we know it and may do so for a while yet. But Minnesota labor leaders are determined that it will not stop efforts to inform and mobilize union voters for the 2020 election.  

The Minnesota Labor 2020 campaign is alive and well – and ready to adapt to challenges and changing circumstances. 

“Our work this election year is incredibly important,” St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Kera Peterson said. “We have to engage as many union members as possible as voters and volunteers, not only to elect a president who respects and stands up for working families, but to assure worker-friendly majorities in both the Minnesota Senate and the U.S. Senate.”

Work to assure a complete count for the U.S. census is also important, Peterson added: “We need to be doing that now, and also working to make sure union members and retirees are registered to vote.” 

Minnesota AFL-CIO Secretary- Treasurer Brad Lehto reported that officers, leaders and political organizers from affiliated unions and labor councils around the state already have formulated a Labor 2020 plan. Now, they are working on contingency plans.  

“If things get better,” Lehto said, “we’ll keep moving ahead with the current plan. If things get worse we’ll have options.”  

Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council Executive Director Jessica Looman shares Lehto’s determination.  

“During this time of uncertainty, the AFL-CIO is working to adapt their voter education and mobilization plans to address many different contingencies,” she said. “The Minnesota Building Trades will also work to ensure that our members’ voices are heard in 2020.” 

Texting could be key 

As an example of adjustments that may need to be made, Lehto pointed to worksite conversations. They won’t be possible if worksites are shuttered.  

“Our whole worksite program would have to change,” he said. “One option we’re exploring is peer-to-peer texting, where worksite leaders could communicate via text messages with co-workers who are working from home or laid off.”  

The Service Employees (SEIU) developed and implemented this in the last election cycle and it worked well, Lehto added, joking, “We’re all going to become experts in tech.” 

Jamie Gulley, President of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and the SEIU Minnesota State Council said, “This pandemic has made clear how important it is to have elected officials who care about working people.  

“We know there may be challenges in our usual election plans that focus on person-to-person conversations with possible social distancing still in effect. Luckily, we have experience with texting, online ads, phone calling and relational organizing tools that will help make sure we do everything possible to elect candidates who support working people. 

“No matter what tools we end up using, we are going to have tens of thousands of conversations about electing candidates who see this pandemic not as a chance to divide us and give more to the rich, but as a sign we need to pass laws that put Minnesotans’ health before corporate profits, and to support our Unions for All agenda to make sure every Minnesotan – no matter our job, race, zip code or gender – can live a safe and healthy life.” 

Getting social – at a distance 

Another route Minnesota Labor 2020 planners are exploring to reach union members with relevant information in pandemic times is digital communications and paid media.  

Already in the works are some 15-, 30- and 60-second videos of union members from various unions saying why unions matter to them personally, and how working people need each other and won’t buy attempts to divide us by race, ethnicity or other differences. 

Door-knocking, too, is a traditional election year tactic that wouldn’t work if COVID-19 exposure testing and contact tracing don’t reach necessary levels and stay-at-home policies persist into the fall. Volunteers likely will be reluctant to risk exposure to the virus, and people won’t want to open their door to a stranger.  

Phoning is an option, but has proved less effective in recent years, and traditional phone banks often involve bringing volunteers together in close quarters.   

“If phoners are unable to social-distance, virtual phone banking is a way around that,” Lehto said. “Volunteers can access a list on their home computer or, if they find that difficult, they can get a paper list to phone from home.” 

Regardless of how it gets done, the Labor 2020’s work is critical, Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy said. 

“While this pandemic may change the methods used to communicate with union members about the election, it underscores why the 2020 election is so important,” he said. “We need to elect leaders who will join with us to make sure no worker is left behind, and we emerge from this crisis stronger than before.” 

Retirees get early start 

Members of at least one Minnesota labor organization are on the phones already. The Minnesota State Retiree Council has launched an effort to make sure retired union members are registered to vote. “Comparing union lists with state voting records finds 6,000 Minnesota union retirees not registered to vote,” State Retiree President Ken McInnis reported.  

Retiree Council Election Work Coordinator Carol Freeman and other volunteers have asked for clearance from Minnesota AFL-CIO affiliated unions to call their retired members who aren’t registered to vote.  

Meanwhile, they’re calling everyone on retiree council mailing and email lists to learn how retirees are staying informed. If they’re not already subscribed to the Retiree Bulletin, Election Work Co-Coordinator Martha Johnson signs them up and also points them to the Retiree Council website, http://www.mnretired.org, and Facebook page, facebook.com/mnaflcioretired. 

Another retiree initiative is advocating for Vote-by-Mail legislation.  

The State Retiree Council passed a resolution urging the State of Minnesota to send a voter registration form, together with an application for an absentee ballot, to every unregistered Minnesotan who is eligible to vote, including pre-paid postage for return. The Minnesota AFL-CIO Executive Board adopted the resolution.  

“Given the current majority in the Minnesota Senate, I can’t imagine the measure will pass the Legislature,” McInnis admitted. “But if legislators really believe that voting is what democracy looks like, they’ll support it.” 

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  1. […] levels. A great deal of the energy has formerly been invested in face-to-face conversations, but in the age of social distancing, this should shift dramatically. Even phone bank operations may have to adapt. Digital media and paid advertising might see an […]

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