African-American Vote, Steelworker Mobilization Help Tip Alabama Senate Race to Jones

Dan Flippo, the Birmingham-based Steelworkers district director for the Deep South, noticed something interesting when he looked at Republican U.S. Senate nominee Roy Moore’s last run for statewide office.

Moore barely won that Alabama Supreme Court race. He did, however, win Mobile. And GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump won Mobile by 14 percentage points in 2016. “If we can reverse that result in Mobile,” Flippo thought, “we can beat Moore.”

And that, in so many words, is what the Steelworkers’ door-to-door canvassing, phone banking and mobilization helped to accomplish in Mobile. In the Dec. 12 vote, Democratic nominee Doug Jones, son of a Steelworker, won Mobile by 56 percent-42 percent – and the state by one and a half percentage points.

Mobile’s shift was one part of the reason Jones won 49.9 percent of the vote to Moore’s 48.4 percent. A major factor was the African-American vote, accounting for 30 percent of the electorate – a higher share than when Barack Obama ran for president. African-Americans went for Jones by 96 percent to 4 percent.

Those voters knew Jones had successfully prosecuted the racists who bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young black choir girls, in 1963. They also knew Moore said he wanted to repeal every U.S. constitutional amendment since the Bill of Rights – including those outlawing slavery and guaranteeing citizenship to everyone born in the U.S., regardless of race, creed or prior servitude.

In addition, a majority of white women with college degrees voted for Jones, That may have been an expression of disgust over the numerous accusations that Moore sexually molested teenage girls when he was a local prosecutor in his 30s. 

Mobile was a case study for how unions can make a difference electorally, even in deep-red Alabama.

The Steelworkers’ campaign in Mobile was augmented by the Government Employees in central Alabama, the building trades in several areas and the teachers – the Alabama Education Association – in Birmingham.

Together, the unions made up for the dearth of Democratic Party organization in the state, say Flippo and state AFL-CIO President Bren Riley, also a Steelworker from Gadsden.

“Once we saw what happened on the Republican side, we decided to play big,” Flippo said in a telephone interview the day after the Dec. 12 Jones win.

In addition, Jones “had a Steelworker history,” having worked in unionized steel mills as a teenager during summers, while his father was a career Steelworker at U.S. Steel’s Fairfield Works outside Birmingham.

“We think Jones can really help the state and can bring in more manufacturing jobs,” Flippo explained. Those are well-paying jobs “and that’s good for organized labor. When workers prosper, everybody prospers.”

So the union put seven reps in Mobile for a month and a half in the run-up to the Dec. 12 vote, Flippo said. They went door-to-door, averaging 1,500 door-knocks daily, and ran an extensive phone bank, too. “We kind of thought we could move Mobile,” Flippo said in an understatement. 

They also sent canvassers into Montgomery. That city went for Jones, 72 percent to 26 percent.

The state federation concentrated on Montgomery and Alabama’s “Black Belt,” an area in the south named for its fertile soil, but also with one of the state’s highest concentrations of African-Americans.

Sometimes the Democratic Party structure was so hapless that the unions had to step in with basics, such as yard signs, Riley said. The national AFL-CIO sent two regional field reps, skilled in get-out-the-vote, to help.  

Riley believes more Democrats can be elected in Alabama and more workplaces organized in the low union density state if labor steps up like it did in the senate race.