UNITE HERE has been preparing for 2020 since 2016. Plans were already in motion to make this the biggest year yet for our union. Then COVID-19 struck. As a union of hospitality workers — hotel housekeepers, cooks, and casino workers among them — we were hit hard by the pandemic. In the spring, at what was then described as “the peak of the pandemic,” 98 percent of UNITE HERE members lost their jobs. After years of consistent growth, our union was thrust into a fight for survival: for our union, for our members, and for America’s working people. 

While the pandemic threatened the lives and livelihoods of workers and their families, there was another threat: Donald Trump. To say that Trump failed American workers would be an understatement. As stay-at-home orders spread, UNITE HERE members and other working people counted on elected officials for support in the form of expanded unemployment benefits, protection of health insurance, and swift response to control the spread of the virus. Instead, millions were left to fend for themselves while Trump bailed out corporations. Fighting for our members meant doing everything in our power to get Trump out of office. That meant getting out on the doors.


Contactless Canvassing

UNITE HERE has always been a union that prioritizes personal relationships and one-on-one conversations in our organizing. It’s one of the ways that we build strong worker committees and it’s been one of the keys to making us the fastest-growing private sector union in the United States. As such, the centerpiece of our decades-old political program has always been door-to-door canvassing: workers talking with other workers about building power through voting.

COVID-19 created a whole new set of challenges to implementing a successful door-to-door canvassing program for the 2020 presidential election. Many organizations, including the Democratic Party, chose, at least in the beginning of the election cycle, to eschew door-to-door canvassing because they determined that it could not be done safely or effectively. They said no one would even open their door to a stranger during a pandemic. They said that the election could be won without it, choosing instead to rely on paid advertising, mailings, and other kinds of indirect “relational organizing” such as phone-banking and text messaging.

Our years of experience on the doors told us otherwise. We knew that direct conversations on the doors have been proven more effective than digital, print, or phone outreach at persuading undecided voters and helping all voters navigate the changing process of voting — particularly crucial in a year like 2020. 

We were committed to canvassing in person, but we knew we had to do it safely. So UNITE HERE consulted the best health professionals, and, based on their advice, we developed a program that would protect both our door knockers and the voters we visited. We called it “contactless canvassing.”

As part of this program, canvassers gathered every day on Zoom instead of participating in a traditional in-person launch. In this virtual meeting room, they ran through a typical agenda: reviewing highlights of the day before, hitting training points, and coordinating turf for the day. Then they headed out to knock doors. Typically, canvassers hit their turf in pairs, which they still did — only, in 2020, they each took their own car instead of driving together. After a long day, small teams of ten would meet outdoors and maintain social distance to debrief.

While on the doors, our safety protocols called for asking voters to put on a mask if they did not come to the door wearing one (many did not); canvassers traveled with a box of masks to offer to voters if they didn’t have one. We found that what could have been an awkward interaction often led instead to an immediate discussion of Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic and the direct impact this had on that voter’s life. 

Strict adherence to these protocols ensured that none of our 1,700 canvassers contracted COVID-19. Perhaps even more remarkably, in spite of the very real emotional and logistical challenges involved in doing door-to-door canvassing in a pandemic year, the turnover rate on our canvass teams was incredibly low. 

We attribute this to the fact that UNITE HERE members chose to take part in the program as part of a broader commitment to being union leaders, even though in some cases that meant spending months away from their homes and families. I mentioned before that UNITE HERE is a union that places tremendous value on direct organizing, and our election work is just one aspect of the work we do to build collective worker solidarity. So, while a small number of canvassers did return home early, owing to family reasons or difficulties with the physically demanding nature of the work, most stayed for the duration.

This high retention rate is a marked difference between our canvass and a traditional political canvass. Another difference is that canvassers’ experiences in our political program contribute to building broader worker power within our union, as canvassers return to their home cities and shops with both a renewed commitment to their union and new skills and relationships that only strengthen local organizing efforts.

In all, UNITE HERE had 1,700 full-time canvassers — many of them Black and Latinx union members whose jobs and families were hit hard by COVID-19 — knocking on doors, plus 1,000 national phone bankers. Together, they knocked on the doors of three million voters and dialed over ten million phone numbers. 


Long-Term Investment Makes the Critical Difference

The locations where UNITE HERE put boots on the ground weren’t chosen simply in response to the current political climate. Our political program is built on decades of trial and error and a commitment to building power for working people.

In Nevada, for the last twenty years, we have organized our base of 140,000 UNITE HERE Culinary Union members and their family members into a political powerhouse. We operate in two locations in the state: Las Vegas, where our members live and work, and Reno, where workers have been left behind. As a result of our combined efforts in both cities, Nevada first flipped for Barack Obama in 2008, and it was one of the few swing states that went blue against Trump in 2016. We have also played a key role in local and statewide races for candidates supporting working people.

This year, for more than two months — until well into October — we were aware of only one other Nevada canvassing effort in the presidential race: the Trump campaign. In addition to grappling with the pandemic, canvassers in Las Vegas faced a historic heat wave; in Reno, they grappled with severe smoke from the California wildfires. (These extreme climate events were yet another reminder of the dire need for new leadership in the White House, as if we needed it.)

Further south, we moved forward with a program in Arizona. UNITE HERE made the decision to export the Nevada model there a decade ago, where we spearheaded a campaign to oust Joe Arpaio — the most racist sheriff in America — in 2012. While Arpaio ultimately won re-election, in the process we registered 35,000 new voters, most of them Latinx. When the 2016 election came around, the momentum that was built among that newly-energized Latinx electorate played a major role in finally kicking Arpaio out of office. In 2018, we helped elect Arizona’s first ever female U.S. Senator and the first Democrat elected to statewide office in over a decade. We believed that the pieces were in place for Arizona to flip blue.

Our 2020 Arizona program was also led by UNITE HERE members, with canvassers who were diverse in both age (ranging from 15 to 75 years old) and race (canvassers were white, Latinx, Black, Native, and Sudanese American). The campaign launched in late July, making us the first group in our state-coordinated independent campaign to go on the doors. Other organizations’ field operations launched in the subsequent weeks and months, and some indicated that the success of our model gave them the confidence that canvassing could be done safely and effectively.

Our new frontier this year was Florida, a state where Donald Trump won in 2016 by only one point, and 500,000 registered Democrats did not vote. We saw an opportunity to make a critical difference in one of the most critical states and focused our efforts on South and Central Florida, where thousands of UNITE HERE members live and work.

We all know that the presidential election results in the Sunshine State were not what we had hoped for, but we’re proud of what we accomplished there. Joe Biden won in all five of the counties where UNITE HERE canvassers knocked doors, including two counties, Seminole and Polk, which went for Trump in 2016. We won all of the down-ballot races that we supported, including electing the first woman mayor of Miami-Dade County and four Miami-Dade county commissioners. Floridians also voted by a razor thin margin to pass Amendment 2 (amendments in Florida need 60 percent to pass, and this one received 60.8 percent), which will gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15, making Florida the first state in the South to do so.

The results of the election proved that we’re not yet at the level of organization needed to take Florida back. It is huge, it’s diverse, and the Trump campaign ran a ground game that operated virtually uncontested for a few months. But we’re undeterred because we know that neither Nevada nor Arizona were flipped overnight. We will put in the work to organize Florida, and we look forward to working with allies along the way.

Our unexpected highlight in 2020 was Pennsylvania. The successful implementation of our programs in Nevada, Arizona, and Florida opened the door for new funding to put together an operation in Philadelphia, where major changes to voting procedure allowed no-excuse mail-in voting for the first time in the state's history. Unfortunately, the process was complicated and confusing. Our canvass there focused on low-income communities of color and, in the end, the block of votes that officially put Joe Biden over the top came from Philadelphia.

After the election, UNITE HERE partnered with other labor and community groups to design actions that framed the days of ballot counting as joyous and celebratory.

Through our hard work on the doors in all four states, union housekeepers and cooks persuaded a total of 440,000 infrequent voters to vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Most importantly, they identified 125,000 unique voters who had not voted in 2016, including 42,411 in Nevada, 48,364 in Arizona, and 34,863 in Pennsylvania — exceeding the margin of difference in these swing states.


A Challenge: Let’s Deliver Democracy Door-to-Door

In the end, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won this election, but it’s no secret that the Democrats have work to do to rebuild relationships among the American people. There is ground to be gained in both the House and the Senate, but doing so in states that have swung red for some time will take work. It will require talking to people face to face, and it’s going to take more than UNITE HERE and our close partners to do it. 

All of us, and especially the Democratic Party, must double down on doing the work long-term to engage with people where they live and work. The way to win elections and to move our country forward is to knock on your neighbor’s door and have a conversation. This is particularly true when targeting infrequent voters, people struggling to make ends meet, and people of color who often face enormous obstacles to voting and historic disenfranchisement.

As I write, there is a battle for two key Senate seats in Georgia: a state that could be viewed as a historic symbol of the Confederacy, now set to swing the Senate. Simply saying that is remarkable, but it’s no surprise to people who have been paying attention to Georgia politics. Stacey Abrams, Fair Fight, the New Georgia Project, the Georgia AFL-CIO, and others have put in the work for years. That work is bearing fruit right before our eyes, and UNITE HERE is honored to have been invited to support their work in Georgia for the runoffs.

All that said, any electoral gains must be followed by real change. For our union, that means providing economic relief for workers left jobless by COVID-19, supporting workers to join unions, protecting access to quality health care, implementing structural change for racial equity and immigration reform, and ensuring workers are at the center of the economic transition necessary for climate change.

The election may be over, but our work continues. We’re creating the change we want to see, and we’re doing it through organizing that builds power, one voter at a time.


Click here to read the entire Elections 2020: Strategy Debrief issue.


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