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This Union’s Ground Game Could Help Save Democrats

Service sector workers with Unite Here are leading the largest canvassing operations in several swing states and growing their union base while doing it.

Unite Here

Nene Diallo, an airline catering worker and Unite Here member in Philadelphia, first became involved with her union’s political program in 2020. Her husband was deported by the Trump administration just shortly after Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, West Africa, became a citizen. “It’s been three years but I’m still living it,” she said. “I turned out to be a single mom overnight, with all the expenses and responsibilities that come with three kids.” The forced separation of her family, and losing her catering job earlier in the pandemic, drove Diallo to pour all her energy into canvassing full-time in hopes of getting former President Donald Trump out of office.

Now, Diallo spends her days knocking on doors to get the vote out in two of the most closely watched races of the midterm elections: the Pennsylvania Senate race between John Fetterman, the large, tattooed populist running against celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, and the gubernatorial race between Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano, an election-denying extremist. Both Democrats are in the lead, but Fetterman’s race has tightened sharply in recent weeks. 

Unite Here’s political program, called Workers to the Front, is currently leading the largest canvassing operations in the states of Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. The service-sector union has been harnessing the power of nearly 1,200 organizers to try to win competitive races for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. In Pennsylvania, Unite Here canvassers have been laser-focused on reaching voters in poor and working-class neighborhoods, areas with many Black and Latino residents who may not typically vote. 

But the union workers aren’t just knocking on doors to turn out voters for Fetterman and Shapiro. They’re also trying to get more people in union jobs, and increase union density. Unite Here has a hospitality worker training program that guarantees a union job at completion. Canvassers said that most of the people they connect with on the ground get “really excited” at the mention of union jobs, even the ones who aren’t interested in politics or voting for Democrats. The skills developed through old-fashioned door knocking, they said, also make them stronger organizers in the workplace. 

Gun violence and abortion rights have been the two biggest issues on the minds of Philly voters and Unite Here members alike, the canvassers told More Perfect Union this week. Inflation pressures and the general cost of living is always a top concern, but the union has been prioritizing issues like crime ahead of the midterms. Republicans have seized onto crime and made the fear mongering a centerpiece of their campaigns, especially in their attacks against candidates like Fetterman. But for many of the people canvassing in Philly, the issue of gun violence is no hypothetical. Just a few weeks ago, a Unite Here canvasser was shot in crossfire after she finished her shift knocking on doors. Francine Eason, a lead canvasser and housekeeper, said gun violence has been her most politically motivating issue. Her daughter was robbed at gunpoint last year, “so that’s why I’m out here, it needs to change,” she said.  

Unite Here’s canvassers, most of whom are women of color, were crucial to President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. After the pandemic decimated the hospitality industries, putting 98 percent of Unite Here’s members out of work, the union scrambled to support its 300,000 members, and deal with the big economic blow to its budget. Months later, the union hadn’t recovered, and still suffered from a staggering unemployment rate. Many of these laid off workers channeled their frustration into defeating Trump, pouring all their time into knocking on doors and reaching out to voters in areas that are typically overlooked. And they were the only ones doing it on the Democratic side, at least on this scale. 

The Biden campaign and state Democratic parties had shut down all in-person canvassing and voter contact out of pandemic safety concerns. But the Trump campaign wasn’t fazed by the Covid-19 surges around the country. Up until the final stretch of the race, the Trump campaign was knocking on a million doors a week, while the Biden campaign knocked on zero. Unite Here’s ground game proved to be indispensable to the victories, including Arizona’s blue shift. In 2020, the union workers turned out 125,000 Democratic voters in Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania that hadn’t voted in 2016, according to Unite Here.

When organizers canvassed in Northeast Philly on Tuesday, a few of the people who answered their door mentioned that they are registered as Democrats but considering voting for Republicans in Pennsylvania’s general election, or sitting out the election altogether. The last voter of the day for organizer Frederick Hollis was a registered Democrat who said he was thinking about switching parties or not voting at all because he hadn’t seen any changes in his quality of life or improvements in his community with Democrats in control. “They don’t do anything here,” he told the canvassers in Spanish. Hollis couldn’t change the retiree’s mind, but by the end of the conversation, his opposition had softened and he told them that he would continue to think about it.

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