I spent the day in Gary, IN talking with Steelworkers who worked the election. One theme stands out: Despite the huge success of labor unions and liberal/left organizations such as the 527s at mobilizing voters, they left much to be desired in terms of organization. Several reports of disorganization, bad/old lists of registered voters, lack of follow-up with potential volunteers from the 527s, etc. all indicate that the Republican GOTV machine was probably a bit tighter.
Fymer and Dreier are right to suggest that there is a "union effect" on voters. As mentioned, gun owners voted for Bush by 20+ over Kerry, but union gun owners voted for Kerry over Bush by 12 points. There is also a union effect on seniors: Kerry lost non-union seniors but won by 41% among union seniors (all according to the AFL-CIO exit polls). White men and women vote differently if they are in a union. Kerry lost white men overall by 18% but carried white men in unions by 21%; Kerry lost white women overall by 4% but carried white union women by 35%. And of course there is much bantering over the role of "moral values". The number one issue mobilizing non-union voters was "moral values", compared to the number one issue mobilizing union members: the economy and jobs. A huge difference union membership makes.
So this difference makes the revitalization of the labor movement all the more urgent for the Democratic Party and the left more broadly as Paul says. Regardless of how it's spun, union households as a percentage of the electorate declined for the first time since 1992 (from 26% in 2000 to 24% in 2004). However, it is still remarkable that union households are still a quarter of the electorate considering the stark decline in overall union density (12% now). Increasingly, union organizers will have to rely on non-Board strategies to win organizing campaigns. UNITE-HERE, among a couple of other unions, have pioneered the labor-intensive use of "card-check" campaigns. But even this tactic is in jeopardy of emboldened conservatives in Congress who will try to choke off this strategy (remember Taft-Hartley).
A nasty and passionate fight over the future direction of the union movement is about to happen in the House of Labor (leading up to the July '05 AFL-CIO elections). There will be lots of debate over organizational structure and strategy. But whatever the outcome, labor needs to commit to at least two things: 1) political education. Unions need to implement a movement-building, grassroots political education program that tackles head-on both economic and social issues. Ignoring "divisive" issues of race, gender, sexuality (and even 'class') won't make them go away, and these issues will continue to bite labor's ass as they have throughout U.S. labor history. The union vote for Kerry should have been at least 70%, not barely breaking 60. 2) be a broader movement for social justice. What I mean by this is that labor should expand its vision as not just fighting for its members, but fighting for working-class and poor people of all nations, races, genders and sexualities. Scrap the "Voice at Work" rhetoric; unions should fight for economic and social justice, workplace and industrial democracy, and reclaim the "morals" debate. As Dreier and others argue, poverty is immoral. The fact that it is the law of the land that you can be fired because of your sexual orientation with no legal recourse is immoral, period. This is a 'union issue'. Unions need much more than just the "right to organize". They need to become a movement which stands strongly for carrying on the "Unsteady March" for social justice and equality. Don't worry about the Democrats...they'll be forced to join the movement bandwagon.