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Pa. unions using new tactics to influence the midterm elections

From teachers to Verizon technicians to hotel workers, local unions says members are more engaged than ever in the political process, and unions are training them to be, too.

32BJ SEIU members canvass on Oct. 20. The union says its set to knock on 30,000 doors statewide this year, up from 20,000 in the 2014  midterms.
32BJ SEIU members canvass on Oct. 20. The union says its set to knock on 30,000 doors statewide this year, up from 20,000 in the 2014 midterms.Read more32BJ SEIU

In October, the Communications Workers of America kicked off a six-week statewide "political activist boot camp" in Hershey, educating its members — call center workers, service technicians, Verizon store clerks — about topics like the history of the labor movement and wage inequality.

The American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania requested (and got) three staffers from its national union, up from the usual one, to work on the midterms, organizing phone banks and canvassing trips in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

And Philadelphia's branch of the service workers union UNITE HERE is testing out a new strategy this election year: It has dispatched its members to their workplaces, armed with voter data, to get their coworkers to commit to voting.

Political work — door-knocking, phone banking, donating money to candidates — has long been part of the union playbook. But this year, and in a midterm election, no less, Pennsylvania unions have devised new strategies to mobilize and empower their membership to get involved in the political process. They want members to understand that a union's work is not just about negotiating and enforcing a contract — they also need people in office who will protect the right to organize and bargain.

Members seem to be hungry for this kind of political education, union leaders are saying.

"People are realizing that the bill of goods that they were sold two years ago was a lie," said Ed Mooney, the CWA vice president who covers Pennsylvania

As he tells it: They saw the U.S. Senate confirm two anti-worker justices to the Supreme Court. They saw a tax cut benefit the wealthiest people in the country. They saw how the Supreme Court ruled against public-sector unions in its Janus decision this past June.

So, they have to be involved, not just in the presidential election, but in every single one, Mooney said.

CWA has been hosting political activist boot camps for members across the country, but it brought the training to Pennsylvania for a second time this fall to gear up for the midterms, said senior campaign lead Sandra Jeong Lane. That's an acknowledgment that Pennsylvania is a battleground state, she said.

Jennifer Szpara, a 42-year-old Verizon call center worker just outside of Pittsburgh who completed the first boot camp in 2016 and helped run the second one last month, said it was the 2016 Verizon strike, and how government officials stepped in to help, that showed her the importance of electing candidates who "are going to support the fight for our working people."

"We want to change the tide by electing leaders who will hold Wall Street accountable," said Szpara, chief union representative of her local.

The boot camp is akin to 32BJ SEIU's Social Justice Leadership Academy, launched in 2016. That program, taught in six sessions over the course of six months, is what pushed Monsumi Ortiz to get interested in politics. A military veteran and security officer who lives in North Philadelphia, Ortiz, 28, canvassed for the first time this year as part of the union's effort that's outpacing the 2014 midterms: The union says that by Election Day, it will have knocked on 300,000 doors statewide, up from 200,000 four years ago.

At the same time, the Pennsylvania State Education Association organized its first statewide canvassing program, in which more than 150 teachers and support staff knocked on 41,000 doors all over the state to talk about how decisions in Harrisburg impact school funding, according to spokesperson Chris Lilienthal.

Ortiz said that through door-knocking in neighborhoods like East Falls and Southwest Philadelphia, she learned how to talk to people who were undecided about voting. A lot of them, she said, feel as if their votes don't matter.

"I tell them, I wouldn't be knocking on your door if your vote didn't matter," she said.

It's been a similar lesson for Jerry Tinnin. A houseman for 34 years at the Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District in Old City, Tinnin is one of the longtime leaders that UNITE HERE tapped to persuade his coworkers to vote.

The union, which represents roughly 5,000 hotel and food service workers in Philadelphia, decided to focus its efforts on its own members, thinking it might have more success in-house instead of with strangers, said UNITE HERE research analyst Dermot Delude-Dix. UNITE HERE figured: Why not lean on the workers who are already turning members out to rallies and meetings? The ones whom members trust?

The program is in coordination with the election strategy of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, the labor umbrella organization, which asks all its unions to do things like canvas, phone bank, and pass out education materials in the workplace.

Tinnin said some of his coworkers have their doubts. They say voting means they'll have to go to jury duty. To which he responds, yes, jury duty is a little boring. But that's just one day. Would you rather have that, or, he says, "excuse my French, four years dealing with a lot of crap?"

Out of roughly 50 coworkers of his who are registered to vote, he said he's gotten about 40 to sign their names on his list and commit to voting.

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