By Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer
Organized Labor will report next month about some of the ill effects that the turnover in control of the United States Senate in the November 4 election may have on Building Trades work in San Francisco.
In the City, on the other hand, the election was good to us. As reported elsewhere in this month’s edition, the transportation bond measure Proposition A passed overwhelmingly; it will bring us work both directly and indirectly. Proposition J, which will increase the minimum wage in the City by steps to fifteen dollars an hour, also passed. Proposition L, for a new, more car-friendly transportation policy, was defeated, and its defeat – as I explained in this space recently – keeps at bay another threat to our work.
We returned Supervisor Malia Cohen, a friend of the Trades, to office in District 10, in the only seriously contested Board of Supervisors race.
The election result that may prove most important to the Trades, though, was the narrow victory of David Chiu for State Assembly in District 17, on the City’s east side. Chiu will be a very capable legislator and an ally of the California State Building and Construction Trades Council in our fights in Sacramento. The efforts of Building Trades unions at both the local and state levels really did win the election for him.
And yet, and yet … we could have done better.
In low-turnout elections such as this last, the campaign that best succeeds in getting its voters to go to the polls or to submit absentee ballots has a much greater chance of success. The campaign must identify voters already committed to it, convince some undecided voters to decide in its favor, and then assure that these voters vote.
This requires a long and often frustrating process of one-on-one contacts between campaign workers or volunteers and potential voters. It requires making thousands of phone calls and visiting thousands of homes. It requires enduring hostile comments, hung-up phones, and slammed doors. It requires patience with misunderstanding and skepticism.
Many of us are in the Trades because we much prefer the creation of solid, useful things to the vagaries of dealing with the public. The creation of solid, useful things being measurable in so many cases, in our work success is as apolitical as possible, and we can afford a distaste for politics.
When we work on election campaigns, then, we are far happier with the physical work of hanging campaign materials on doorknobs than with ringing doorbells.
If we are to continue the success of this last election and to expand on it, we must learn to work differently.
Many Building Trades unions have already taken good first steps in this direction. They have programs that reward their members for various kinds of public activism, including participation in political campaigns.
These systems of rewards could be combined with classes that develop the skills needed in the person-to-person work of phone banking and precinct walking, or could grant higher rewards for this work than for distributing door hangers or holding campaign signs at prominent intersections.
They could then also be adopted by Building Trades unions that do not yet have rewards systems.
Such systems should not have to be viewed for reporting purposes as strictly political, because the same skills and types of work could be used in charitable or organizing campaigns.
The Building Trades do have one real advantage in this work that many other organizations do not, in that have a large immigrant membership speaking languages other than English. We are already what the California electorate is becoming, and we can draw on the language and cultural abilities of our members in the personal work of political campaigns.
Just so, Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking members of some of our unions have been willing and essential participants in some recent City campaigns. This kind of effort can and should be expanded.
And we have another advantage: Observers from outside the Labor movement have often remarked to me that Building Trades members seem to feel more ownership of their unions than do members of most other unions. We expect our members to voice their thoughts, pro or con, about the running of our unions. We expect them to be engaged.
If we are dead straight in explaining to them the importance of a political campaign, we can expect them also to be as strong in working through it for their collective interests as they are in defending them otherwise.
Take these steps, and we will have learned from our success in this election and established practices that will sustain that success through many elections to come.