GOING DOOR TO DOOR IN A PHOENIX NEIGHBORHOOD to register voters, Mari Yepez, a canvasser with UNITEHERE!, met a man who told her he didn’t believe in voting. Yepez, a student at Arizona State University who has worked with the union to mobilize residents around such issues as the state’s harsh immigration law and the struggle to find good jobs, shared with him how she had come to realize the importance of voting.
“We as a community have to come together to make this happen,” Yepez told him. “Imagine what we could do if we all joined together.”
The man ultimately not only registered to vote but was enthusiastic about going to the polls in November.
With tea party politicians attacking voting rights in states throughout the country, Yepez and other volunteers across the nation are trying to make sure every eligible voter can cast a ballot and that every vote will be counted. Like Yepez, many are volunteering with union-community coalitions—in her case, it’s the Campaign for Arizona’s Future, a political campaign created from a union-community coalition begun several years ago.
Tomas Robles with the leadership training organization Promise Arizona, a major community partner in the coalition, calls Campaign for Arizona’s Future a “movement-building campaign.” But with the November elections coming up, this community coalition, like many others, is all about making sure people can make their voices heard at the polls by educating and registering voters. Other coalition partners include UNITEHERE!, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) and the AFL-CIO.
In Arizona, the immigration law (S.B. 1070), passed in 2010, is a constant reminder of why working families need to make our voices heard at the ballot box. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected three of four of the bill’s provisions but left intact for now the requirement that local police check IDs to determine immigration status—a provision that gives “the green light to discrimination and racial profiling,” say AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) Executive Director Pablo Alvarado. S.B. 1070 has created a climate of fear that Yepez sees every day in her interactions within the Latino community, where the racial profiling of random police stops and children who fear one or both parents will be deported are common.
So when Yepez and others go door to door and to local organizations, including Scout clubs, schools and congregations, they talk with young workers and Latino residents, educating them about the issues and, ultimately, encouraging them to register to vote and cast their ballots.
Nicholas Javier, a former union organizer now with CASE, sees similarities between community outreach and union organizing. “There is a direct line from ‘trying to change my workplace’ to trying to change the political environment,” says Javier.
The union movement is working in community partnerships this year in what AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker describes as “the most aggressive push ever” to register voters. In June, the AFL-CIO announced a far-reaching, multi-partner campaign to register voters, ensure they can cast their ballots without intimidation and follow through to make sure those votes are counted. Partners include the NAACP, National Council of La Raza and the Generational Alliance, a collaboration of 20 national youth organizations building power for underrepresented and low-income communities. Youth and minority populations are those with the highest rates of unregistered voters. Along with member-to-member voter registration by national unions—with a target goal of registering 20 percent of unregistered union members—the AFL-CIO’s voter registration program is planning registrations blitzes in Albuquerque, Philadelphia, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland and Houston.
Registering voters is more important than ever, says Holt Baker, because “the attacks we are seeing on the right to vote are unprecedented.” At least 180 bills restricting voting have been introduced in 41 state legislatures since the beginning of 2011, after the 2010 elections shifted control of 20 state legislative houses from Democrat to Republican. Thirty-four states introduced voter ID requirements that would effectively disenfranchise more than 21 million eligible voters who don’t have the required IDs—mostly people of color, low-income voters, students, seniors and people with disabilities. The results of the 2010 Census showed a heavy increase in the minority population in this country—particularly the Latino community, with a 43 percent increase in population. The Census also showed that, for the first time in decades, the population is increasing most heavily in the southern and western states—the same states where many laws restricting voter registration have passed.
This year, newly registered voters can make a difference in the presidential election, as well as state and local races. Fifteen states that have passed restrictive voting laws have the potential to make the difference in the 2012 election (Florida—where Gov. Rick Scott is conducting a blatantly partisan and possibly illegal purge of the voting roll, plus Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin and West Virginia). These states account for 210 electoral votes, or nearly 78 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.
The union-community partnership in Arizona’s goal is to register 40,000 new voters this year—and many of those who will be voting for the first time are outraged over S.B. 1070. Through the coalition’s efforts, Latino voter turnout increased by 300 percent in the 2011 Phoenix City Council race, helping elect Democrat Greg Stanton. In that same election, the 480 percent increase in the Latino vote in Phoenix District 5 elected firefighter Daniel Valenzuela to a seat long held by property developers who did not represent many of the residents’ economic interests. Now, the coalition is “deepening the sense of empowerment started previously in the Valenzuela campaign,” says Javier, and working hard to mobilize voters. During one recent weekend, when area high schools held graduation ceremonies at a central arena, volunteers registered between 400 and 500 new voters.
Brendan Walsh, co-director of Campaign For Arizona’s Future, says the struggle in Arizona today is part of the long history of working people's efforts to improve their working and living conditions—efforts that “have been met with intimidation tactics, both in the workplace and in their communities.
“In the coal mines, in the fields, on construction sites and in hotels, workers are harassed and fired when they try to stand up for themselves.” Yet “the working people who drive Arizona's economy have never stopped fighting for their fair share of the pie. We are sure that our time has come to take our seat at the decision-making table in our state.”
The AFL-CIO My Vote, My Right website offers hands-on information on voter registration, voter ID laws and steps to take to protect your right to vote on Election Day. Find out what you need to know to make sure your vote counts this year. Get information on voter registration, your voting rights by state and more at the AFL-CIO’s MyVoteMyRight.org.
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