When the 2-million member Service Employees International Union announced in February a $150 million investment in the 2020 election to beat President Donald Trump, the union had no idea its members would soon be on the front lines of a global pandemic.
Now in the final month of the election cycle, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry said that her members might be key to delivering new support for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
The SEIU’s election efforts “target infrequent voters in communities of all colors — white, Black, brown, Latinx and Asian,” Henry told HuffPost. Because the union’s members live and work in those same communities, they can reach out “to the voters where they have similar life experiences — and can help persuade people,” she said.
Henry’s original plan for this year was to build out a massive field operation as they did in 2018, sending thousands of canvassers into battleground states to organize for Biden. That idea was scrapped. Instead, the union has recruited its members to focus on their own communities. Like a lot of political organizers during the pandemic, they’ve pivoted to dropping off literature and are using sound trucks, lawn signs, phone banking, text banking, direct mail and digital advertising to reach out to potential voters.
Their push in support of Biden is aimed at reaching people who don’t typically engage with political campaigns. The union’s membership is half women and half people of color and more than half make less than $15 an hour. Henry said they represent the ignored and infrequent voters who could make all the difference for Biden in tough states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan and Arizona.
The SEIU primarily represents workers now recognized as “essential” amid the pandemic. They’re the nurses, home care and long term care providers, janitorial service employees and food service workers who have labored in some of the most high-risk jobs over the last nine months.
Unlike many campaign volunteers, who are limited to organizing from home during the pandemic, the union members are also able to reach out to voters at their work sites. At one Pennsylvania hospital, for example, the union is talking not only to its members but to all the non-union workers as well, Henry said.
“All the service workers and the most underpaid workers in hospitals are all Black and brown in Pennsylvania,” she said, and her members can speak to them in person.
SEIU members have already made more than 14 million phone calls and sent more than 12 million text messages, according to Henry. A month before Election Day, the union estimated based on public voter file data that there was a five-fold increase in the number of infrequent voters ― typically, low-income voters of color ― who had cast a ballot in eight battleground states.
The Biden campaign has heavily featured essential workers, as part of its vigorous criticism of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. The SEIU has played a visible role in that push. Last week, Jill Biden held a virtual roundtable discussion with Henry and several health care workers from California, Florida, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
The SEIU’s digital ads feature a range of essential workers, from a labor and delivery nurse in Nevada to a drug rehabilitation counselor in Pennsylvania. Union members are also using their own pandemic experiences when speaking directly with voters.
“Every day you get out to work with a fear, that feeling that you don’t know if you come back home with the disease, if you bring it home or not,” said Anne Mercie Blot, a 46-year-old Haitian nursing home worker based in Miami. “You have to go to work anyway because someone has to take care of the sick ones, someone has to take care of the elderly.”
Blot puts time in on phone banks and text banks for Biden six days a week through the SEIU. She told HuffPost that she primarily speaks to Florida’s immigrant community.
Turning out foreign-born voters in Florida could make a big difference for Biden. The majority of immigrants eligible to vote in the United States live in just five states — California, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Florida. The first three are not key battlegrounds in the presidential election, but Florida and this year even Texas are.
Blot hopes her exchanges with fellow immigrants have made a difference. Like herself, one woman she spoke with had come to the United States in search of a better quality of life. Instead, Blot recalled, the woman felt like she was in “the same situation she was living, [just] in a different country.”
“You know what, girl, we have so much in common,” Blot said she replied. “I don’t know you and you don’t me but we got this done.”
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