Florida unions reach out to infrequent voters in final stretch of campaign

Florida-based union members who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic are making their final push to get out the vote for Joe Biden days before the election. 

They’re targeting infrequent voters — who in some cases haven’t cast a vote since 2008 — and hoping that sharing their personal stories will help get more of them to the polls. With over 7.3 million votes already cast in Florida, where polls show Biden and President Trump are virtually tied, hospitality and fast-food workers are trying to have one more conversation with some of the 7 million Floridians who are registered but haven’t voted yet. 

High numbers of voters who did not cast a ballot in the last election are turning out in battleground states this year. In Florida, 25.8% of Democrats who have voted early in Florida so far did not vote in 2016, according to the Democratic elections data firm TargetSmart. Among Republicans, 21.8% of the total who’ve voted so far did not not in 2016.

Most of the members of UNITE HERE, a union representing 34,000 hospitality workers in Florida, were laid off at the start of the pandemic. Seven months later many still haven’t returned to their jobs, says Wendi Walsh, the union’s state political director. She said UNITE HERE scrambled to get its members access to unemployment benefits and then ultimately hired some who were willing to share their stories with voters as canvassers.

They are “incredibly focused on how they’ve been treated over these last several months, both by Governor DeSantis and by Donald Trump,” said Walsh. 

Florida Republicans in the state shut down their in-person voter mobilization efforts during the pandemic, but not for as long as Democratic groups did. Walsh said in June, UNITE HERE took an “educated risk” and restarted its in-person get-out-the-vote efforts. It consulted health professionals, hired hundreds of laid-off members, and a couple dozen began door-knocking again. The group has helped fill the in-person voter engagement gap left by Democratic organizers who were still holding mainly virtual events due to COVID-19.  

“As much as we were having some success on the phones…you really can’t replace looking someone in the eye and talking to them about their vote,” said Walsh.  

In September, Biden made his first in-person visit to Florida as the Democratic nominee after the coronavirus forced him to cancel a trip in March. He was here again Thursday, during the last full week of the campaign. By the time Biden landed here in mid-September, Mr. Trump had already been to Florida — now his official residence — at least 10 times since the year began. 

More than 300 UNITE HERE members are working as full-time canvassers — making $684 per week — and 500 volunteers are calling voters and sending texts. Since they returned to the field three months ago, none have tested positive for the coronavirus. 

CBS News joined UNITE HERE members during a socially-distanced canvass in Central Florida. Lizbeth Concepcion, 33, is a housekeeper at Disney and a Hurricane Maria refugee. Like other Puerto Rican voters in Florida who are working to defeat President Trump, Concepcion said some of his past comments and actions towards the island will be top of mind as she votes. Concepcion is a paid canvasser who said she’s also knocking doors in part because of the discrimination she’s felt as a member of the LGBTQ community and because of the racism she’s experienced. 

“I feel like I’m doing something big for this society, and I enjoy it a lot,” said Concepcion. 

“When I knock at the door, I tell them about my story,” said Francesca Clerizier, a 51-year-old mother of six who’d lost her job at Disney before joining UNITE HERE as a canvasser. “I tell them please go out to vote. If you don’t want to go to vote, vote for me, because I need it for my kids. I need it for my life.”

Concepcion and Clerizier have helped UNITE HERE members connect with more than 100,000 Biden supporters viewed as “low propensity” — those who are less likely to vote and haven’t participated in recent presidential elections. These voters receive multiple phone calls and face-to-face visits from the union, Walsh said, to keep pushing them to vote. So far, her team has made 5.3 million phone calls and has knocked on nearly 350,000 doors. 

Other groups like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are also hitting the pavement again. In January, it launched a $150 million program — the largest in its history — to reach infrequent voters in Black, LatinX, and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.  

SEIU members meet before canvassing in neighborhood in Orlando, Florida. CBS News / LaCrai Mitchell

Alphonso Mayfield, 42, an executive committee member for Florida for All, a group of progressive partner organizations, said SEIU has knocked on 519,000 doors since September. 

CBS News joined SEIU on a humid Saturday afternoon in downtown Orlando, where an organizer gathered members for canvassing. Using her iPad, she pulled up a list of addresses of voters in the area. Ten minutes later, the group approached a yard adorned with a Biden-Harris sign and a “Yes on #2” sign. The person on their list had in fact moved, but the middle-aged woman who answered the door said her family had already voted for Biden, eliciting a chorus of cheers from the SEIU members.  

After about 30 minutes, the group came across a registered voter who hadn’t cast his ballot yet. 

“We’re trying to get people to go out and vote for the minimum wage to be $15,” said Jamelia Fairley, a fast-food employee who was canvassing. “You’ll vote yes on Amendment two?” she asked the voter. He said he would, and the SEIU group behind her cheered again.

SEIU member Josephy Gourgue knocks on doors in downtown Orlando

Most of the neighborhood encounters were friendly, and they came across no undecided voters. At one home, a resident shooed the canvassers away from a neighbor’s yard, accusing them of soliciting, but this didn’t faze them.

“The Joe Biden-Harris policy is better suited for the working class. He’s talking about raising the minimum wage,” said Joseph Gourgue Sr., a 61-year-old wheelchair attendant at the airport who makes $9 an hour. 

Fairley, 25, is a leader in the Fight for 15 campaign, an effort to increase the minimum wage in Florida to $15 an hour. She brought her young daughter with her as she knocked on doors to promote the pay hike. 

“It’s hard living off of $10 an hour because I still can barely afford rent and food on the table,” said Fairley. She added, “We’re trying to make a change and the only way we can make a change is if we go out and vote.” 

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