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Phone Banking the “Other Half”

Bobby A. Summers

It’s Presidential election time, and I’m trying to do my share to dump Bush, by phone banking twice per week (I hate phone banking). For those not familiar with modern American election practices, phone banking involves calling people, lots of people, about who they are likely to vote for. And, well, if they too are interested in dumping Bush, making sure they are registered to vote, and actually get their ballots in.
So, a couple of days ago, I had the following “phone-bank” conversation with this woman, who is also a member the State employees’ union. Judging by voice, my guess is that this woman is not one of the State’s higher paid employees; maybe a low level clerical workers, and possible a janitor. At any rate, the conversation went like this:
“All politicians are assholes”, she said to me.
“Well, I really can’t argue with you on that point”, I said, “But, are you registered to vote? Are you going to vote?”
“No, they’re all assholes. I don’t vote”, she said again.
“Well, have you really thought about it?” I said. “The way I’m looking at it, this is probably the most important election in our lives. I’m no great fan of John Kerry, but the stakes of Bush winning are so bad…”
Silence on the other end.
“Do you have kids?” I asked.
“Yeah”, she said.
“So how is your kid’s school going to be funded with the public budget going to pay for George’s imperial adventure in Iraq?” I asked.
No answer.
“Remember Enron?” I asked her.
“No”, she said.
“Well, they’re the ones that bilked 180,000 employees out of their pension.”
“Hmmmm”, she said.
“Under Bush, they’re the guys making the nation’s energy policy… Do you remember?”
“No” she said again. “Well, they are”. I said.
“Look”, I said, “The lines are pretty clear. I bet you work for a living? Well, George just bilked a whole pile of folks out of overtime pay, he’s for abolishing employee rights, he’s about less wages, he’s about no retirement, he gives giant tax cuts to the rich. This guy wants you to take things away from you, not help you”.
“My wages have been frozen for the past year”, she said.
“I know, and you have a contract coming up too”, I told her
“Yeah”, she said.
“State workers need to be looking at a strike next summer”, I said, pushing it a little further.
No response on the other end of the line.
“Look”, I said, after a bit of a pause, “Maybe things will go to hell in a hand basket…. And it’s just going to happen. But, there is a difference here, and it will affect you, and doesn’t it feel better to personally take a stand? Win or lose?”
“Ummm… well…”, She was thinking. Maybe I was making some sense.
“So, can I send you some voter registration stuff”, I asked her ever so politely.
“No, I don’t vote”, she said, in a matter of fact way.
“Well, would you think about it? You can still register up to October 12”, I said, not wishing to beat a dead horse.
“OK, I’ll think about”.
“Thanks”, I said.

Many of my fellow organizers and union leaders would fume about a woman like the one I was on the phone with. “Idiot”, they’d call her. “Stupid apathetic damned member”, others would say. “Hopeless jerk”, would be the correct categorization, according to most of my fellow union people.
But I’m not so sure. To my mind, I was having a conversation with a woman who rather clearly demonstrated the viewpoint of the approximately 50% of the population who are eligible to vote, but don’t. 

And really, why should they? These are working people. They live from one paycheck to the next, having nothing left over. More likely, they don’t have enough in the first place, to take care of the rent, the bills, and food too. This is the “other half”.

So why should she vote? Neither of the two political parties speaks to her. Neither of the parties has put her well being up as any kind of a priority at all, although both parties are more than happy to spew platitudes at her until the cows come home. Her life has probably gotten harder under the Bush Presidency. But, it was hard, and getting harder under Clinton too. So really, what’s in it for her? 

Somebody once described the difference for workers between the two political parties as being the difference between, “benign indifference” (Democrats), versus, “outright hostility” (Republicans). When I go in to phone bank, I know I am making a pitch to workers and members, that indeed, “benign indifference” is preferable to “outright hostility”. I know too that I would be being dishonest if I actually tried to convince this “other half” that Kerry did have an agenda to make life a little easier for working people, because he doesn’t.

I wonder though, what would happen if we, the unions, the progressive ethnically based organizations, “self-care” organizations of the poor, progressive religious organizations, organizations of the left (such as they are), decided to develop a political program that does speak directly to that 50% who don’t have a reason now? 

The woman I was talking to a couple of days ago had no hope. She had no hope that any election would change her fate; she had no hope that she, her co-workers, and union could strike the State bosses and win. I understand this hopelessness; it is hopelessness based on the perception of absolutely no reasonable options. I’m more optimistic though; a determined 50% of the “other half” could be quite a power. So I’m hoping we can develop a politics of hope, maybe.

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