‘We’re going to win’: the union fighting for Democratic votes during the US midterms

States like Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania may determine who controls the US Senate, invigorating Unite Here’s effort to mobilize Democratic votes

Nene Diallo has already been knocking doors for a couple of hours, but she approaches each new home with fresh enthusiasm.

Whenever someone opens a door, she explains she is canvassing with Unite Here, the union that represents Diallo and 300,000 other workers in the hospitality industry. She encourages voters to consider supporting Pennsylvania Democrats, particularly the gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro and Senate candidate John Fetterman, in the upcoming midterm elections.

Diallo repeats the process dozens of times on a thankfully sunny October morning in Upper Darby, a working-class suburb of Philadelphia with a large immigrant community.

An immigrant herself from the west African country of Guinea who became a US citizen in 2019, Diallo is uniquely suited for her task. At one point, she seamlessly switches from English to French to ask a man from Haiti how he intends to vote. “Vous allez en personne ou par mail?” she inquires.

Diallo is one of hundreds of Unite Here members participating in the union’s massive canvassing efforts across Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania, the largest such operation in each of the battleground states. These three states could determine control of the US Senate in November, and they are home to several toss-up House races that will be key to Democrats’ hopes of keeping their majority in the lower chamber.

Clerks demonstrate ballot processing machines ahead of the 2022 US midterm elections in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Clerks demonstrate ballot processing machines ahead of the 2022 US midterm elections in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Ryan Collerd/AFP/Getty Images

After providing Democrats with some crucial assistance in 2020, Unite Here canvassers are back on the ground door-knocking for the party’s candidates. They hope that their face-to-face conversations with neighbors, co-workers and friends can help Democrats avoid the widespread losses typically seen by the president’s party in midterm elections, and they are determined to knock on every possible door before 8 November.

Unite Here’s leaders have already proven themselves to be skilled at designing and executing a thoughtful canvassing operation to elevate Democrats’ electoral prospects.

In 2020, when Joe Biden’s campaign and many other prominent Democratic organizations were wary of door-knocking because of the pandemic, Unite Here worked with an epidemiologist to develop safety protocols to make contactless canvassing possible.

By the time polls closed on election day of 2020, Unite Here organizers had knocked on 3m doors across four battleground states. In Nevada and Arizona, the number of infrequent voters identified by Unite Here who had not cast ballots in 2016 exceeded Biden’s margins of victory, leading the union to boast that it won the two states for Democrats.

Unite Here’s culinary union in Nevada has long been a political powerhouse, but the larger-scale canvassing efforts in states such as Pennsylvania have been a more recent innovation. Rosslyn Wuchinich, president of Unite Here Local 274 and the campaign director for the Philadelphia “Workers to the Front” campaign, said she and her colleagues were driven to act after witnessing Donald Trump carry Pennsylvania in the 2016 election.

“Watching a hotel and casino owner win our state made us deeply resolved to never let anything like that happen again,” Wuchinich said in the back yard of her Philadelphia home. “So when 2020 came around and we had the opportunity to run a massive operation, we jumped to do it.”

A sign directing voters in Pennsylvania to a polling station. The state is a key battleground for determining control of the US Senate this year.
A sign directing voters in Pennsylvania to a polling station. The state is a key battleground for determining control of the US Senate this year. Photograph: Quinn Glabicki/Reuters

Even with Biden in office and Democrats in control of the House and the Senate, Wuchinich and her fellow Unite Here members are taking nothing for granted, knocking on doors six days a week in the month leading up to election day.

The Philadelphia team recently celebrated knocking on more than 10,000 doors in a single day, marking one of their best days of the campaign so far. Their counterparts out west have been similarly diligent, with Nevada organizers already knocking on more doors this campaign season than they did in 2020, a remarkable feat considering the midterms generally attract less attention than presidential races.

Timothy Freeman, a Unite Here member of 12 years and a canvasser in Philadelphia, said he and other organizers have made a point to emphasize the significance of the upcoming elections when they speak to voters.

“They might not know. They’re thinking about just the presidential election,” Freeman said after a morning of canvassing in Upper Darby. “Every election is important. Every election is connected. So it takes us to get out there to let them know how important it is.”

Early voters line up in the US. In Philadelphia, canvassers like Timothy Freeman are energizing an electorate to come out and cast their vote in the midterms.
Early voters line up in the US. In Philadelphia, canvassers like Timothy Freeman are energizing an electorate to come out and cast their vote in the midterms. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

But the Unite Here canvassers are speaking to voters about more than just the upcoming elections.

While knocking doors in Upper Darby, Diallo asked voters about their interest in joining Unite Here’s Hospitality Academy, a two-week program that guarantees participants a union job upon completion. One woman, an immigrant from the west African country of Togo, excitedly chatted with Diallo and her canvassing partner as she filled out the interest form for the academy.

“I don’t want the voters to feel like that we’re just out here to get your vote. You know, we care about y’all,” said Frederick Hollis, a Unite Here member of 22 years and a Philadelphia canvass team lead.

The opportunity to gain a union job could carry particular resonance this year, when inflation has reached record levels and anxiety over the cost of living has crept up with it. A CNN poll taken this month found that the economy and inflation ranked as the top issue for voters in three battleground states, with 44% of respondents in Pennsylvania calling it their top priority.

Volunteers help voters cast their ballots at an early voting location in Maryland.
Volunteers help voters cast their ballots at an early voting location in Maryland. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Those concerns have contributed to Biden’s lackluster approval rating – which has been underwater for more than a year – and voters’ economic frustration that threatens to drag down candidates like Fetterman and Shapiro.

As he speaks to working families who are concerned about everything from rising prices to gun violence and abortion access, Hollis explains how he can acutely relate to their struggles.

“A lot of people I talk to have the same background I had. So telling your story that kind of reflects on them too, that makes people vote,” Hollis said. “Then they tell their story. And then next thing you know, you find yourself sitting or standing on somebody’s porch for about 20 minutes, half an hour.”

Asked what he tells voters who criticize Democrats over the state of the economy, Hollis said: “I tell them to vote. Things are not going to get better until we start voting and electing the right people.”

The personal, long-lasting connections that Hollis and other organizers build with voters are key to Unite Here’s success as both a union and a political organization, its leaders say. Progressives have previously criticized Democratic party leadership for failing to cater to the needs of some of its supporters – particularly low-income communities of color, which are a focus of Unite Here’s canvassing efforts.

“Most of the communities that we’re canvassing in have experienced severe disinvestment, and many people feel largely abandoned by the government and the political system, both nationally and locally,” Wuchinich said. “I think what any national group needs to learn is that the best way to get people involved in the political process is to have people who come from their same communities or similar communities speaking with them and that they need to hear the issues that people are concerned about, not just who they’re voting for.”

Unite Here’s attention to voters’ specific needs could help insulate Democratic candidates in Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania from a national environment that appears to be quite favorable for Republicans. And in Pennsylvania, Wuchinich and her colleagues have cause for optimism.

Shapiro has a nine-point advantage in the gubernatorial race, according to FiveThirtyEight, although Fetterman’s lead over his opponent, Mehmet Oz, has narrowed in recent weeks.

“I’m enthusiastic. We’re going to win,” Hollis said with a smile on his face. “I’m going to knock doors so we can bring this in for Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman. We’re going to bring it in for them.”

Wuchinich is more cautious with her expectations, as the pain of Trump’s 2016 victory still lingers in her memory. But her fears have only made her more determined to speak to as many voters as possible before 8 November.

“When I get nervous, I just remind myself that we didn’t do this in 2016,” Wuchinich said. “We’re an organized force fighting back against the very dangerous direction that some people want to take this state and this country.”


Joan E Greve in Philadelphia

The GuardianTramp

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