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Published in Print: November 1, 2000, as NEA, AFT Dig Down to Details in Effort To Mobilize Members

NEA, AFT Dig Down to Details in Effort To Mobilize Members

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If there is such a thing as a perfect campaign operation, it probably looks something like this:

It has a foothold in every electoral district in the country—an army of members so big that their votes alone might decide many races. Further, those members are public employees whose work lives are shaped directly by elected officials.

Finally, it has in place a permanent network of well-trained field- staff workers at the federal, state, and local levels ready for action whenever election time nears.

In short, it looks a lot like a teachers' union. Few organizations can match the nationwide reach, potential pool of volunteers, and ability to mobilize staff members for political campaigns of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Even when compared with other labor organizations, the teachers' groups wield an impressive arsenal of political clout, in part because their members are so evenly distributed across the country, and the general public tends to see educators as credible messengers. What's more, both unions are savvier now than ever before when it comes to politics, and both are using new tactics and technology in an effort to deliver votes.

"It's so close this year that the winners are going to be the candidates who get their votes out," said Dennis Friel, one of the NEA's political field managers. "And we've taken it to a new level."

Wielding Influence

The NEA stands as the country's largest single organization of employees, with 2.5 million members. Every congressional district in the country includes between 5,000 and 15,000 NEA members, and the union need not raise special political funds to get in touch with them or their immediate families. As a result, merely convincing union members of how to vote and making sure they get to the polls can make the difference when races are especially tight, as they are this year at both the presidential and congressional levels.

The AFT boasts more than 1 million members and is able to leverage additional influence through its membership in the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization of unions representing more than 13 million workers total.

Some measure of the importance of the teacher groups' ability to sway their own members is seen in the documents they must file with the Federal Election Commission, the agency that monitors and regulates campaign spending in federal races. Labor groups are required to report to the FEC much of the money they spend trying to persuade their members to vote for, or against, specific candidates.

According to analyses of FEC filings by the Washington- based Center for Responsive Politics, the AFT spent at least $346,000 of its general-treasury funds just to communicate with its members about supporting Vice President Al Gore's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination during the primary-election season earlier this year. (As of last week, the FEC had not received reports documenting the union's political-communication costs since then.) That compares with $189,000 the AFT reported spending on similar efforts supporting the 1996 re-election of President Clinton, who ran unopposed in the primaries that year.

As of late September, the NEA had reported spending more than $1.1 million this year on communications to its members not just about who it believed should be president, but also about whom to elect to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Four years ago, the NEA reported no such spending on federal races, a change that reflects a clear shift in strategy.

FEC regulations require labor groups to report communications to their memberships only if political persuasion represents the primary purpose of such contacts. In other words, two pages of information on a candidate stuck in the back of a regular newsletter need not be reported.

This year, however, in an effort to be more focused, the NEA is going well beyond its regular publications by sending its members materials that deal only with the federal elections. By using such targeted strategies as direct mailings, an organization like the NEA is able to better tailor its messages.

"Historically, the NEA at the national level has not communicated directly with members in this way—our state and locals have," said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA's director of governmental relations. "In this election, we made a decision in our planning two years ago to actually embrace national direct mail, and hire a national [direct-mail] vendor to be more effective and more targeted."

One piece of mail the NEA has produced, for instance, praises Mr. Gore's class-size-reduction and preschool proposals, while another highlights his opposition to tuition vouchers. Still a third, printed in Spanish, is titled "Retorica vs. Realidad," and calls into question the Texas education record under Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee.

Like the AFT, the NEA has endorsed Mr. Gore, the Democratic nominee. Both teachers' unions have long tilted heavily toward the Democratic Party in their political endorsements and in their spending.

"One of the greatest problems that the Republicans have is that they have no similar base to mobilize the grassroots," said Amy Kauffman, who directs the Campaign and Election Law Project for the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. "Whereas the Democrats have allowed the unions to become their grassroots supporters—the average citizens who band together to work for their endorsed candidates."

The Personal Touch

To understand how the unions work with their members—and how they're taking greater advantage of the power of information technology to organize campaigns— it's necessary to picture them in action. Consider the NEA's strategy this year in its effort to help the Democrats win back the House majority they lost in 1994.

Over the summer, the union identified 27 competitive congressional races where opinion polls suggested that a Democratic candidate—either an incumbent, a challenger, or someone vying for an open seat—had a shot at beating a Republican. NEA headquarters in Washington then dispatched one staff member to work full time in each of those districts, arming the employee with CD-ROMs listing all the NEA members in the district, their ages, their party affiliations, and where they work.

Then, in late August, the organization carried out a round of telephone calls to its members in those districts to find out whom they supported, which members were undecided, and who would be willing to volunteer—all of which was filed away on another set of CD- ROMs.

While a total of 8,000 members in those 27 districts agreed to volunteer, the NEA by that time also had ample information about its undecided members. So as the new recruits got to work at phone banks and other campaign operations, the NEA was able to begin distributing direct-mail literature— matched to each member's concerns—to those who still needed persuading. Some were also sent material via the Internet.

"So we're very focused," said Jack Pacheco, the NEA's political-affairs manager. "Basically, we're talking about five pieces of mail, plus doing it electronically."

AFT leaders have also retooled their nationwide mobilization strategy over the past two years.

The union's past techniques were more arm's-length, depending to a greater extent on phone calls and mailings to members, said Juanita Dunlap Smith, the director of the AFT's political- and legislative-mobilization department. But now, the union is striving to get its message across through union leaders at each school, so that when members hear a campaign pitch, it's more likely to come from someone they know.

In fact, as part of a similar effort under way throughout the AFL-CIO, the teachers' federation has been working to recruit one member at every school in the country to work on organizing political action among his or her colleagues. The effort consciously seeks to mirror the lines of communication that unions use during contract talks, in which elected representatives—or stewards—at each building keep members informed of the progress of negotiations.

"What we're trying to do is to move toward a separate, parallel structure at each work site," Ms. Dunlap Smith said. "So then we can have a person who is responsible for nothing but political and legislative activity at each work site, and that person will work alongside the building steward. And this would be a lasting structure."

Ironically, much of the AFT's new grassroots mobilizing strategy grew out of tactics it honed in 1998 to fight California's Proposition 226, a so-called "paycheck protection" ballot initiative that would have made it harder for unions to raise money for political activity.

The measure served as a rallying point for a vast array of labor groups. Ultimately, it went down in defeat.

"The reason we were so successful in [Proposition] 226 was that we did focus on work-site education," Ms. Dunlap Smith said. "And we then supplemented that with a direct-mail campaign that was coordinated by the AFL-CIO, and did a media campaign."

In fact, Ms. Dunlap Smith ran the AFT's anti-Proposition 226 campaign, and it was largely her work there that led to her selection as the head of the AFT's new political-mobilization department. Previously, the AFT had never had such a permanent office devoted to coordinating grassroots political activities.

"Proposition 226 completely energized the labor movement and trained it to act more politically sophisticated," said AFT spokesman Jamie Horwitz. "Really, one of the dumbest things that some people on the right ever tried to do was to try to weaken us. We owe them a debt of thanks."

Getting Out the Vote

Beyond the unions' nationwide strategies are the abundant grassroots activities of their state and local affiliates—efforts that could prove crucial to the outcomes of many elections next week.

In the swing state of Michigan, for example, the NEA's state affiliate has been helping coordinate a plan to put volunteers on 500 phones in 22 locations around the state in the hope of reaching all of its 150,000 members by Election Day—an effort that could help give Mr. Gore just enough support to claim Michigan's 18 votes in the Electoral College.

"We've kind of run our organization inside-out to make sure we get there," noted Ken MacGregor, the Michigan Education Association's political consultant.

And while polls suggest Mr. Gore will easily take New York state, first lady and Democratic Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton will benefit from the work of the AFT's massive state affiliate there, including a recent "singles' night" phone-bank operation that brought together teachers and members of an electrical workers' union.

Moreover, union affiliates this year are proving to be especially creative in their get-out-the-vote campaigns. North Carolina's NEA affiliate, for example, is taking advantage of the state's new "no excuses" absentee-ballot system, which allows individuals to cast their votes at polling sites throughout the state at any time in the three weeks leading up to Nov. 7.

Since mid-October, the North Carolina Association of Educators has regularly rounded up members at schools and taken them in groups to cast their ballots. The state organization even has set aside a bus at its Raleigh headquarters to provide transportation to the polls.

"If they want us to come by and pick them up at school, we'll send out the bus to get them," said former NCAE Executive Director John I. Wilson, who becomes the new executive director of the NEA this week. "We've decided we're going to try to vote as many people as we can, so I believe we're going to have the best turnout of school employees that we've ever had."

Vol. 20, Issue 9, Pages 33-34

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Web Resources
  • In an effort to spread the "Get-Out-The-Vote" message, AFT provides the AFL-CIO's E-Vote Cards for distribution.
  • The NEA prints a member-generated Election 2000 poster promoting its key issues and using the slogan "Making Sure Candidates Listen to Us."
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