WASHINGTON -- The Service Employees International Union, one of the most influential labor organizations in Washington, D.C., is undertaking a comprehensive effort to reach Latino and African American voters in the lead up to the 2012 elections, the union's president announced on Friday.
Speaking from New York City -- where she was arrested on Thursday while participating in Thursday's Occupy Wall Street protests -- SEIU president Mary Kay Henry laid out a three-pronged political strategy that the union would pursue in the months and years ahead.
The union, she said, plans to work with allied groups like the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza on what she described as "voter suppression issues." SEIU is also planning to build, in her words, a "community infrastructure, both in African American and Latino communities," to educate voters on the issues and boost voter registration, two distinct and -- for purposes of tax filings --decidedly separate components. The third goal by definition has a longer time frame: keep communities engaged passed 2012.
"We intend to expand the number of members giving, and then we intend to engage Latino and African Americans members in these community based efforts. ... That's building on what we've done in the past, but expanding it to more cities and states which we're just now trying to work," said Henry.
The union plans to tie its election plans into the organizing its done over the past year focusing on jobs, Henry said, adding that SEIU had ambitions to reach out to more than just its union members.
"We hope to engage more non-union workers in the first quarter of 2012," she said.
Earlier this week, the 1.8 million-member SEIU announced that it was endorsing President Barack Obama's reelection campaign. The choice of candidate wasn't a surprise but the timing of the announcement raised some eyebrows. Why now?
"We see it as a part of this larger movement that we need to build," said Henry when asked about the early announcement. "We need to make it crystal clear inside our union and across our communities that we face a very stark choice in the country and we need to get organized."
"We're going to try to register and help all the voters that are going to have to get photo ID in order to get re-registered to vote in this election," Henry continued. "We're very concerned about educating people about the choice that we face."
Since it disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO in 2005, the SEIU has generally been defined by an intense political focus on national politics, a stance embodied by its former leader, Andy Stern. The political operation that Henry outlined doesn't deviate all that much from the plans Stern implemented, but it seems a touch more tailored to the union's strengths and the Democratic Party's needs.
Outreach to Latino voters is one of the Obama campaign's principle objectives, Obama advisers have said. In a poll released on Thursday by the Democratic firm Lake Research only 43 percent of those voters described the president's job performance as good or excellent; fifty-five percent said it was fair or poor. The president's campaign manager, Jim Messina, didn't seem overly concerned when pressed on the matter, telling The Huffington Post's Jon Ward that Latino voters "understand this president has made a good-faith effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and the other side has had a debate on how to campaign against them in the primaries."
That may be so, but there also is a difference between being appreciative of what the president has tried to do and being persuaded to head to the polls for him next November. And with the reelection campaign relying heavily on Latino-heavy states -- Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and even Arizona -- it's not a surprise that groups like the SEIU are also helping with that lift.
"It is in line with what the Obama campaign needs for its reelection," said one Democratic party operative. "It is totally tailored to the needs of the campaign."