Ladies First

08.29.14 9:45 AM ET

Women’s Groups Showing Labor Who’s the Boss Now

The movement ‘in crisis’ has groups like Emily’s List taking the lead—to get needed female voters out this November. The AFL-CIO’s chief on the minimum wage, immigration, and Hillary.

With control of the Senate hanging in the balance, progressive groups are linking arms with labor in an unprecedented “Kumbaya” moment to turn out voters in the November midterm elections, especially women voters.

The responsibility for motivating the 22 million women who were registered to vote but who sat out the 2010 election—which ensured the GOP’s control of the House—has put groups like Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, and OWL (Older Women’s League) in the forefront, heading into the fall campaign season.

With an historic gender gap waiting to be exploited, the labor movement has taken an apparent back seat in the 2014 lead-up, at least when it comes to media attention. In his traditional Labor Day sit-down with reporters, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the labor movement was “still in crisis,” its numbers still too small, and he cautioned President Obama that if he moved too mildly on immigration reform he risked energizing the right while leaving the left disappointed, disengaged, and less likely to vote.

“He’s gonna do something. I hope it’s bold enough to be worthwhile,” Trumka told reporters at a breakfast organized by The Christian Science Monitor. He said that when he led the Mine Workers union, he got as much grief when he asked for a 50-cent increase in dues as a $5 dollar increase. Obama is expected to announce his plan in September. “No matter what he does, the right wing is going to go bonkers,” Trumka said, so Obama might as well go bold and reap the political benefit.

Obama has been holding meetings at the White House with business and labor leaders to build support for whatever he might announce, though he hasn’t tipped his hand yet on how far he’s willing to go. Trumka calls the lack of reform “a major drag on the economy. Those undocumented workers drive down wages for every American.”

Labor’s focus is on the economy, and for most Americans, wages have been stagnant. In a survey asking voters if they agree that workers are not getting their fair share, 66 percent of those making under $50,000 a year said yes, and 26 percent of those making more than $50,000 said yes. “And here’s the kicker,” said Trumka. “That’s among Republicans.”

With numbers like that, Trumka said he believes that progressive policies will drive the next presidential election. “There is probably more labor solidarity now,” he said, even though the SEIU—[the Service Employees International Union]—is no longer affiliated with the AFL-CIO, “We work together to create that synergy.”

To insure everyone is on the same page, Trumka revealed that all the unions of the AFL-CIO have signed an agreement that no one will endorse until they all decide. They will meet and question all the candidates, including Republican contenders. And in what sounds like a shot across Hillary Clinton’s bow, they will want to know who their economic team will be, what their policies are for the economy, for tax policy, and where they will go with trade.

Trumka had perfunctory words of praise for Clinton, saying she did an excellent job as Secretary of State, but his interests lie more in who she might choose to advise her on the economy. “If you get the same economic team, you get the same result,” he said. Pressed to be more specific, he said he meant “people who think Wall Street is the be all and end all… those who participate in and would go back to Wall Street.” Cutting ties with Wall Street could be problematic for Clinton, who as a U.S. senator from New York represented Wall Street, whose husband’s administration relied heavily on Wall Street talent, and whose prospective presidential campaign will need Wall Street backing.

Women’s groups are more focused this fall on issues specifically geared to women, with raising the minimum wage at the top of the list. Two-thirds of those earning the minimum wage are women. It’s one of several economic issues where the progressive groups and labor line up nicely. Trumka points out that the last time the federal minimum wage was raised, Sarah Palin was governor of Alaska, and the last time it was raised for tipped workers, Hillary Clinton was still in Arkansas.

Labor is active in 14 battleground states: They’ve already spent $1 million in Michigan, and they’re an important component in the firewall that progressive groups are attempting to put in place. But with women voters the crown jewel of the election, groups like Emily’s List are taking more of the spotlight. The pro-choice group just announced a million-dollar ad buy in Atlanta’s media markets to support Michelle Nunn’s candidacy by assailing her Republican opponent David Purdue, who as CEO of Dollar General was at the center of a pay-discrimination class-action lawsuit.

Emily’s List is also active in North Carolina, where it has put $3 million into the campaign of embattled Senate incumbent Kay Hagan. “It’s going to come down to women in 2014 to make sure Democrats hold the Senate,  pick up House seats, and add to women governors,” said Marcy Stech, national press secretary for Emily’s List. But for all the hoopla and press releases surrounding Emily’s List ad purchases, the group is not a field organization, and it doesn’t have the kind of infrastructure, the boots on the ground, that labor historically provides for Democrats.

Labor has perhaps the most at stake this November. With the House likely to remain in Republican hands, and the Senate a good possibility to go Republican, Trumka was asked about GOP friends of labor in the Congress. He named New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo, who the AFL-CIO endorsed. Asked if he could name another, Trumka was stumped. “Not off the top of my head,” he said.