The Left and the Midterms: Fighting the Right and Building the Left. Learning from UNITE HERE and Seed the Vote.
By Larry Hendel. Posted on October 8, 2022.
We on the left have a complicated relationship with the Democrats, especially at the federal level.
Remember the debates of yesteryear? Al Gore vs. Ralph Nader. Supporting Michael Dukakis after we poured our heart and soul for Jesse Jackson. How different really was Bill Clinton from George Bush Sr. Maybe we should do we do an Emma Goldman and boycott them all.
In retrospect those discussion with their nuanced arguments and subtle theoretical points, seem almost luxurious. They were creatures of the before-times, before the Republican party became the domain of frantic, gun-fetishizing fascists, cranked up on racist, misogynistic anger and conspiracy theories.
The 2016 and 2020 elections made more of a difference in our lives than any since the Great Depression and World War II. We on the left must do everything in our power to keep the Congress in Democratic hands, in spite of the party’s flaws. Trump and his ilk must be stopped. They want to decide who belongs here and who doesn’t. Their goal is to rule this country by force, if necessary, utilizing the military, the police, and vigilante groups if they have to. If the Republicans win, they will go even more berserk in attacking our rights, worsening our living conditions, and irreversibly degrading our planet. And they will move in lock step to do so.
However, supporting Democratic candidates does not mean the left has to let the Democrat Party run the show. Their “lather-rinse-repeat” approach to elections will gain us little in the long run. For things to change at the grassroots, election campaigns must be conducted with the goal of building up organizations and progressive movements within the community. They must be part of year round efforts for workers, tenants and people of color. Elections are important, but our main task is to change the system and build up the movements and organizations who can help make that happen.
This article focuses on two groups that utilized that approach in 2020 and are in the process of doing it again in 2022. The groups are UNITE HERE (U-H), the largest union of hospitality workers in the country and Seed the Vote (STV), a Bay Area based political action committee that has been supporting community based electoral campaigns in battleground states.
Both of these groups totally kicked ass on behalf of Joe Biden and other Democrats in 2020 in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida and Georgia, winning in every state but Florida. The two groups also collaborated in getting out the vote in the January Senate runoff in Georgia. (2) (3).
Both organizations are committed to a repeat performance in the midterms. They know if the Democrats lose the Congress, in particular the Senate, Biden will be hard pressed to accomplish even slight improvements over the next two years.
This 300,000 member union is the product of a 2004 merger between the country’s largest culinary union, the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees (HERE), and the largest garment workers union, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). Between 2014 and 2019 the union grew by 24%, adding 62,000 new members, 12,000 of which lived in the right-to-work south. This is a huge accomplishment and deserves more recognition than it gets. (4)
Additionally, the union of mostly women, immigrants and people of color, has become a political powerhouse. In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, when the unions and central labor councils that typically run precinct operations wouldn’t knock on doors because of Covid, U-H’s ground operation actually came to full flower. Ninety percent of their members across the country were out of work. But instead of crying in their beer, the union figured out a way to employ laid off workers in building an anti-Trump ground campaign. Receiving some financial assistance from other labor organizations and foundations (5), they trained workers to talk to voters and were able to cover some of their expenses. Over 1700 UNITE HERE canvassers knocked on three million doors in Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Florida, and over one and a half million doors in Georgia. (6)
The union’s breadth of bilingual members also allowed them to reach limited-English speaking voters. Unlike usual Democratic party campaigns, they focused on low income, BIPOC neighborhoods. Over two thirds of their conversations were with voters of color. (7) These voters typically vote Democratic when they vote, but the Democratic party usually puts them at the bottom of their priority lists or writes them off as not worth the effort.
This year the union is focusing again on Nevada, Pennsylvania and Arizona. Their 2022 program is called Workers to the Front, in my mind a double entendre that means both that workers should take the lead and that workers should go to the battle front.
Here is a glimpse of what U-H is doing in the three targeted states.
In Nevada, one Senate seat and the governorship are on the ballot. Both are currently occupied by Democrats, Catharine Cortez Masto and Steve Sisolak. In spite of the fact that Nevada went for Hilary Clinton by 2% in 2016 and for Joe Biden by 3.2% in 2020, Cortez Masto, a one term incumbent, is facing strong Republican opposition from Adam Laxalt, the former state attorney general and Trump’s Nevada point person in the party’s challenge to the vote count in 2020. Polling in early October shows them neck and neck, with Laxalt slowly climbing in the polls. (8)
The largest Nevada U-H local is Local 226, referred to as the Culinary Union, which represents hospitality workers in Las Vegas and Reno, where 80% of Nevadans live. The local is arguably the most powerful in the state, with a pivotal position in the economy. Nevada’s gaming industry is the biggest employer in Nevada and prior to the pandemic, the hospitality industry accounted for nearly 38.9 percent of the state’s total tax revenues and supported 450,100 jobs (9) It’s not only their place in the economy that makes the Culinary Union’s membership powerful, but they’ve shown employers that they mean business and are not afraid to fight. The six and a half year strike at the Frontier Casino in Las Vegas in the 1990’s was the longest US strike since the 60’s. The union’s current International President, D. Taylor, grew to prominence during that strike. (10) The union has learned how to flex its muscles and make the community and the politicians take notice.
Katie Quan, a former International Vice President of UNITE, helped initiate the volunteer ground operation in 2016, and is the union’s volunteer director in Reno. She told me in September that the union had 55 member canvassers on the ground in Reno, from different parts of the country and hopes to have at least 40 more paid, lost time workers taking Leaves of Absence from their jobs. “We’ve had people in the field for two and a half months, which meant they were walking precincts in the blistering summer heat,” says Quan. “Our goal this year is to get 500 volunteers. Through our partnership with Seed the Vote, we’re arranging for housing and transportation to be paid.”
The Culinary Union has negotiated contract language that permits members to take Leaves of Absence from their jobs to do political activity and guarantees they can return to work at the same job with their same seniority.
Words of Rawanda Rogers, guest room attendant at the Aria in Las Vegas, Culinary Union member for 9 years:
“I decided to take a leave-of-absence and join the canvassing program with my union because voting is how we can make a difference and I want to show my children how we can make change. You can’t have change without being part of making the changes we want to see. I’m a field lead/captain on the canvassing program this cycle, and I feel proud that I have an impact by sharing my story every day and being part of something greater than just myself. We have been in the field knocking on doors since March. Voters are concerned about housing instability, rising rent, price gouging by wealthy corporations, and right to abortion.” (11)
Abortion is still legal in Nevada, but if the Republicans win, they will probably go after it.
Words of Perla Maria, member of Local 2 in the Bay Area, now canvassing in Reno:
“I have two daughters, and they should have a say about their body. When I was pregnant the third time, my third pregnancy had problems, and I had to have an emergency abortion. If I hadn’t had one, I could have died, and then I wouldn’t be there for my children. On the doors I talk to women about the right to choose. We often don’t think about the medical aspects of the need for abortion, or what happens when a woman is raped. We’re told to only picture women who wanted to party and didn’t want the baby. At the door, I get great reception when I talk about my own life.” (11)
As well as getting out the vote for endorsed candidates, the Culinary Union is engaging low propensity voters by demanding the government do something to restrict the huge rent increases that have hit Reno and Las Vegas, the state’s biggest population centers. There is a huge shortage of rental properties, and overnight rent increases of $900 are not unheard of. In both cities the union is pushing for legislation that would limit rent increases to the Cost of Living with an annual maximum of 5% and prohibit rent increases during the first year of tenancy. In the course of their at-the-door conversations, U-H canvassers ask potential voters to sign petitions in support of the tenant legislation as well as supporting the statewide candidates that are on the ballot. (12) The rent stabilization campaign is a way to continue working with voters after the election. It builds community power and builds the union.
I asked Katie Quan why other unions aren’t doing this kind of program. “I don’t know,” she said. “One of the reasons that I chose to work with this program is because the model creates leaders among unions members. The 55 people up here now and the 40 upcoming, they are learning skills that they take home, that they use in internal organizing campaigns for contract fights and for external organizing too. Over the years I’ve seen people just blossom as leaders. For example, there was a Bay Area Local 2 member in 2016, Spanish first language, very bright, caught on, came back as a lead in 2018. He said the other day that when he went back to his workplace in 2016, he began to treat the next contract campaign like a door knocking campaign. He went to each of the members, shared his story and talked about the union contract, which led to real success for Local 2. This year he is a field director, overseeing the work of four or five different leads, each overseeing ten canvassers, so he has grown through this. We keep on reaping the benefits of his participation. If more unions understood how this experience would create member leaders, they would do it.”
Mario Yedidia, National Field Director of UH, talks about the importance of the union’s program in winning this election. “Today we have the largest precinct operation in Nevada. I’ve done four cycles in Nevada, and this is the hardest election I’ve ever worked. The rightwing media structure is powerful. There are hits all day on tv and social media. We need volunteers, and we need resources. There is universal Vote By Mail here. The election will be decided by Halloween. The key voting period will be from October 22 to November 4. So we have to keep talking to them. The way we stop voter fatigue is by talking to them, especially young voters, voters of color, working class voters.” (11)
Pennsylvania went for Trump in 2016 by a little less than 1% and then reversed itself in 2020 and went for Biden by a similar margin. Governor John Fetterman (D) is going against Trump-endorsed, TV host Mehmet Oz (R) for an open US senate seat. The governorship is also open and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) is facing Trump-endorsed Republican Doug Mastriano who brags about having attended the January 6 rally and welcomes support from QAnon.
U-H is focusing on Philadelphia, the largest city in the state and the second largest city on the east coast. In 2020, increased voter turnout in Philadelphia was one of the keys to Biden’s victory.
Words of Rosslyn Wuchinich, President of UNITE HERE Philadelphia Local 274:
“Most Pennsylvania elections are decided within one or two points. Both parties had record turnout in the 2022 primary, but for the first time this century more Republicans voted than Democrats in the primaries. Without strong turnout from low propensity BIPOC and women voters in Philadelphia, Democrats will lose the state. Our members’ lives and our livelihoods are on the line in this election. In Philadelphia, the poorest big city in America, gun violence plagues our neighborhoods and corporate greed makes daily life unaffordable for working people. Pennsylvania’s Republican candidates want to legislate women’s bodies and decide when we become parents. This midterm election is a battle for the soul of our city and our state.” (11)
Frederick Hollis, Philly Workers to the Front canvasser (former Take Back 2020 canvasser in Philly and Georgia), Laundry Attendant at Sheraton Downtown Philadelphia:
“We’re knocking on thousands of doors in Philly’s Black, Brown and low-income neighborhoods where other campaigns don’t go, where we live and work. We listen at the doors, and we share our stories. We hear the frustration, and we break through the hopelessness. We are trusted messengers for the voters who need it most.” (11)
In Arizona, the union’s third targeted state, incumbent Mark Kelly is defending his seat against Blake Masters, a Trumper and election denier. The governor’s race is between Katie Hobbs and Kari Lake, another MAGA sycophant. But the award for best-whackjob-in-a supporting role has to go to Republican candidate for Secretary of State Mark Finchem. (14) who self-identifies as a member of the Oath Keepers, poses with photos of his personal arsenal, has said that Satan rules the US, and has already indicated that if he loses the election, he will not concede. (15)
Beatriz Topete, Organizing Director for UNITE HERE Local 11:
“We are proud that our members, despite the pandemic, were the first out in the field in 2020 to talk to voters. And when we were done in Arizona, we joined other groups in Georgia to win two more US Senate seats. We knew what was at stake for working families if we did not save our democracy, so we knocked on 800,000 doors with 500 canvassers in Arizona. These same workers continue to hit the streets even now to ensure we preserve the future of our democracy, for ourselves, families, and communities.” (11)
Words of Marilyn Wilbur, lead canvasser for UNITE-HERE in Arizona, hospitality worker and 18-year Air Force veteran:
“In the Air Force, protecting our freedom meant putting on my uniform and risking my life. Since 2020, I’ve protected freedom by putting on my mask and talking to voters. Since we won Arizona for Biden, state Republicans passed laws this year purging hundreds of thousands from the mailing list for ballots and shortening time for voters to “cure” their ballots. This is not what democracy looks like. I won’t rest until I know that every vote will count now and in 2024.” (11)
To be fair, other unions are working hard for Democrats also. SEIU has a program which stresses immigrant rights (16). The AFLCIO put out a statement echoing the rhetoric of U-H and other organizations about knocking on doors and making personal connections. They say they will have 100,000 volunteers working on this election and will reach 7.7 million voters by election day. Given their past performance, let’s just say we all hope they can pull that off. (17)
SEED THE VOTE
Seed the Vote (STV) is a political action committee that works closely with UNITE-HERE and other progressive organizations. It started in 2019 in the Bay Area with the goal of linking up volunteers and donors with local groups that were working to defeat Trump in battleground states. Like U-H, STV concentrates on low propensity voters in working class, BIPOC neighborhoods. “As STV, we mobilized volunteers to defeat Trumpism by supporting the electoral work of grassroots organizations in swing states who are building long term power for working class communities and communities of color.” (18) They follow the lead of those organizations when it comes to determining priorities, messaging and strategies. Their slogan in 2020 was Defeat Trump and Build our Movements.
STV recruited volunteers from across the country for phoning and walking, and provided other resources, including linking progressive artists with the various local campaigns.
The organization focused on Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia. All but Florida went for Biden in very close races. STV’s efforts were extraordinary. By November 3rd, they had mobilized nearly 7,000 volunteers who signed up for over 25,000 phone banking, texting, or door knocking shifts with local partners, with face to face visits being the priority. In Georgia they also mobilized for the successful January runoff which allowed the Democrats to maintain their majority in the Senate.
For phone banking, they pursued a decentralized structure of “pods” all over the country. Each pod had 8+ people, typically organized by a volunteer pod leader and consisting of people who already knew each other and enjoyed the comradery of working together. STV provided zoom accounts, scripts, instructions and voter lists, and volunteers worked from home but were also “together” via zoom.
In addition, some organizations took responsibility for organizing multiple pods under their leadership. These organizations included Bay Rising Action, Catalyst Action fund, Chinese Progressive Association Action Fund, Liberation Road, Leftroots, Seedlings for Change and Water for Grassroots.
They raised over $1.2 million to help subsidize volunteers and maintain their infrastructure, over half of which came from major donors, and the rest from close to 5000 small donors. (18). They had had at least one volunteer in all fifty states. To keep volunteers engaged and motivated, they offered political education classes and discussion. They became a “political home” for people who were looking for opportunities that aligned with their values and created a strong bench of motivated volunteers that could be sent around the country. And they documented their work, qualitatively and quantitively, for other organizers to learn from. (18)
They explicitly referred to their work as anti-racist and anti-capitalist and weren’t afraid to refer to themselves as part of the Left. “In 2019 we coalesced around the strong belief that the Left and social movements needed to prioritize defeating Trump. By supporting the strategies of grassroots organizations rooted in communities of color we knew we could win.” While other groups were concerned about which Democrat would get the nomination, STV was talking about taking collective action to defeat Trump months before the Democrats even selected a candidate. “We strategically emphasized the need to throw down to beat Trump no matter who became the nominee.” (18)
One of their first organizational partners was Living United for Change (LUCHA), a Latino group in Arizona that was organizing to keep Democratic Senator Mark Kelly in office. LUCHA is an established organization that advocates for immigrants and people of color and in 2017 played a major part in ousting Republican Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist and anti-immigrant Sheriff. In the fall of 2019 STV put out a call and got commitments from over 150 organizers and activists nationwide to volunteer with LUCHA in Arizona for two weeks in October 2020. They put out the call even before Biden was nominated. “We continued to make these asks far in advance, to get left leaders to prioritize and commit to action for this election.” (19)
Additionally, but as well as defeating Trump, there goal was to build for the future. “It was important to the organizers that our work centered on racial justice and built the long term power of working class communities and communities of color. Our goal was more than to defeat Trump. Rather, our larger goal is to seed the wins to come by shifting the balance of power in favor of communities of color, social justice and labor organizations.” (18)
Maurice Mitchell, chair of the Working Families Party, a group that worked closely with Seed the Vote put it this way. “Electing Biden is a door, not a destination.”
Over sixty percent of the volunteers were from California (42%) and New York (21%). Some might say that fact weakens the value of the program, that in essence, it’s not that different from the Democratic party sending in operatives from the Beltway and other liberal, urban centers to tell others how to vote. STV is very clear that is not what volunteers are being asked to do. Their stated goal, which they repeat constantly, is that STV volunteers work under the direction of local groups with strong ties and a solid base in the community, and those organizations are in charge of the program. As stated earlier, a key part of STV’s goal is to strengthen those organizations. Second, in my opinion, it’s actually a good use of the time and energy of New Yorkers or Californians whose local elections may not be as nearly as significant, from a national point of view. Would it be better if these people just stayed home? Or if they went to swing states without the benefit of being trained on how to not come off as a coastal elitists? I don’t think so.
When STV formed in 2019, it was an experiment. No plans were made to maintain the organization after the presidential election. But last year they decided to keep the organization going at least through the midterms. Over the last year when the punditocracy was pronouncing that Democrats were destined to lose both the House and the Senate, STV rose to the challenge and started gearing up for the elections in battleground states. Part of the strength of this group is their perseverance and willingness to jump into the work.
As stated earlier, UNITE HERE and STV are working together now in Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Additionally, STV is working again with LUCHA in Arizona; Peoples Action in Wisconsin; Pennsylvania Stands Up in Pennsylvania; New Georgia Project and the Asian American Advocacy Fund in Georgia ;and Durham for All in North Carolina. All these groups are based in communities of color and do year round community organizing as well as election work.
Face to Face Contact Works Best
A renewed emphasis on door to door contact is shared by both U-H and STV. “The decision to follow the lead of Unite-Here and switch back to door-knocking in the 2020 general election was crucial to our success. It is a tactic that continues to deliver for electoral work and for our movements more broadly.” (20) UNITE HERE president D. Taylor states categorically, “I don’t think there is any replacement for it.” Research has shown that even though it takes a lot more effort to reach a voter at the door than through phone or text, the payoff is substantially greater. Constituents tend to listen more closely and be more appreciative when someone takes the effort to visit their home. There can be an actual conversation including eye contact and body language. Even in this technological age, with so much of our time spent looking at screens, most human beings communicate best in person. And if the message is right, the impact can be profound. (21)
Plus, the right wing knows how to do this too, and we can’t cede that territory to them. Here is Beth Howard from Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) in Atlanta. “We were knocking on doors that are largely ignored by the Democrats. The only other door knockers I would see were from the right and from the Republican party, and they hit every single door.” (22)
No one in politics disagrees with contacting voters at the door, but few organizations actually make the organizational and financial commitment to make it happen on a major scale. It’s just too damned hard, and it is so much easier to do television spots, social media buys and robocalls. STV tries to overcome these barriers by approaching potential volunteers politically, not just transactionally. According to their own literature, they share their analysis with potential volunteers and convince them of the urgency of the moment. They work to make volunteers feel needed and important and give them escalating levels of responsibility when possible. Additionally, through extensive followup, training and attention to detail, they stay in constant communication with volunteers. As an STV volunteer, I can personally attest to this.
Significance of Focusing on Communities of Color and Challenging Voter Suppression
The election in 2020 had the highest voter turnout in a century, and turnout increased among every racial group. However, whites voted at a 71% rate and people of color voted at a 58% rate. (23) As was expected, people of color voted for Biden at a much higher percentage than white voters. (24) Put these two facts together, and it’s clear that Democrats must keep turnout as high as possible, particularly among voters of color, and that Republicans will do their utmost to suppress it. We’ve seen Republican states pass laws restricting voting by mail, reducing early voting, limiting ballot drop-off boxes and requiring voters to present government issued IDs at the polls. Republicans keep relentlessly pushing their lie that voters and election boards in urban areas (that is, black and brown people) manipulated the vote, which stirs up their base against immigrants and people of color. (This batch of Republican leaders may be crazy, but they are not stupid.) STV’s and U-H’s response to this is simple: keep focusing on working class voters and voters of color, particularly in low turnout neighborhoods. We can’t give up. How do we increase voter turnout among these voters? As Mario Yedidia from UNITE HERE said, the key is to “TALK TO THEM.” (25) No gimmicks. Engage people, listen to what’s on their minds, explain to them why we think they should vote Democratic. Help turn less-likely-to-vote voters into likely voters. It’s all about communication and turnout. It’s basic organizing 101 and sounds easy but it’s very labor intensive and takes a lot of training, energy and experience to do it effectively.
There are several left/progressive national organizations that are doing electoral work with generally the same approach as Seed the Vote. The Working Families Party, Our Revolution, and Progressive Democrats of America are a few, and there are others who are organized around location or ethnicity. The key to the US has always been a strategic alliance between the movements of the working class and communities of color. Kudos to groups such as STV and unions such as UNITE HERE for implicitly putting that point of view into practice.
So what about the Left in this election?
Referring back to our original question about how should leftists relate to federal elections, here is Alicia Garza, a supporter of STV and a leader of Black Lives Matter talking about the left and electoral politics in In These Times. Her article ran under the headline of The Left Should Double Down on Electoral Politics. (26) The opening sentence reads, “For the left, joining electoral organizing to power-building has long been like trying to fuse oil with water. Reform work has often been cast aside for the sake of more revolutionary work, as if the two are not intricately connected. As a result, we have failed to build the power necessary to engage in the revolutionary work that commands so much of our attention.” I would add that for parts of the left the flip side has been true as well; in many cases revolutionary work has been put on the shelf while leftists toiled in the vineyards of labor unions, non-profits and reformist community organizations. Garza goes on to say, “the failure of the US left to engage symbiotically with the electoral arena has been so detrimental. Without electoral power the US left has little hope of influencing allocation of resources, who represents us, what their agenda is, who shapes the story of who we are and who we can be and whether actions that counter our agenda will lead to any consequences.”
I totally agree with this statement. But the question still remains how do we build a movement for socialism while we fight for reforms such as “electoral power?” It’s a dialectical question. The primary contradiction right now is between a united front for democracy vs. the MAGA Republicans and their desire to turn the country into a whites only republic. But while we are fighting the right, we have to build the left. We can’t do either task separately. They have to be done together. We need to keep this mind while we kick some Republican ass between now and November 8th.
Please volunteer to work on this important election. Regardless of where you live, there is work that can be done to defeat the Republicans in the battleground states. If there is a local group in your area that is doing that, please contact them. Or contact STV at https://www.seedthevote.org/sign-up/
Author’s Bio: Larry Hendel is a retired union staffer having worked for SEIU Local 790/1021, the California Faculty Association and AFSCME District Council 57. He was the East Bay Political Director for SEIU 790 and served on the Executive Committees of both the Alameda and Contra Costa County central labor councils. For many years he was an Assembly District delegate to the California Democratic Party State Central Committee and was an elected Jesse Jackson delegate to the 1988 Democratic National Convention. His first experience in electoral politics was in 1962 when, as part of a high school civics class, he worked on Nelson Rockefeller’s re-election campaign for Governor of New York. Thank goodness his politics developed as he got older, and in the late 70’s he became a member of the League of Revolutionary Struggle.