updated 10/29/2004 1:25:16 PM ET 2004-10-29T17:25:16

Workers at Sandmeyer Steel Co. get to leave an hour early on Election Day, with pay, a gift from the company's owners who hope they will go vote.

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The Philadelphia company's Web site links to information about voter registration and candidates' stances on issues important to business, such as taxes, the economy, energy and tort reform. Workers can examine the candidates' scores from the National Association of Manufacturers based on their voting records on business-friendly issues. Republicans fare better than Democrats.

"We're not telling them how to vote, but we do want them to be aware of the different views of different candidates," said Ron Sandmeyer Jr., president and chief executive. "A lot of people think what's good for their company is good for them and good for their families."

In the battleground state of Pennsylvania and almost a dozen others, the tight presidential election between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry will hinge on which side can get their supporters to the polls Tuesday. That's the specialty of organized labor, the voter mobilization machine of the Democratic Party. But since 2000, business groups and other GOP backers, which outspend labor by millions, are increasingly copying the turnout playbook.

"There's nothing comparable on the employers' side to date," said John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers and a former Republican governor of Michigan. "I would like to see businesses be more aware of just how important this communication is."

The association, along with the Business-Industry Political Action Committee and nearly 700 companies and groups, have registered nearly 800,000 new voters and contacted about 20 million workers, Engler said. Sandmeyer Steel is a member of Engler's association.

But the efforts of organized labor and offshoot groups clearly eclipse the GOP's. Unions under the AFL-CIO umbrella have 5,000 full-time, paid workers and more than 200,000 volunteers in battleground states to turn out members. Labor, which could double the nearly $97 million it spent in 2002, has set up 257 phone banks with 2,322 lines running in 16 states, and has handed out more than 32 million pro-Kerry fliers at work sites.

Volunteers rally for change
Jobs and the economy are top concerns for workers, and Kerry has an edge, especially in some Rust Belt states. Michigan and Ohio each have lost about 240,000 jobs since Bush took office. One union flier says, "Vote as if your job depends on it — because it does," and lists Kerry as a "pro-worker" candidate.

"These issues resonate with our members — the fact that things are basically going wrong," said Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, who has been traveling to Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Hampshire before the election.

Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO, said unions have credibility that employers can't match.

"A union represents its members," said Ackerman, in Iowa knocking on union household doors. "The information an employer gives is certainly not as credible as the information a member would receive from his or her union."

One in four voters in 2000 was from a union household, a share that's been rising. Democratic candidate Al Gore won 59 percent of union household voters to Bush's 37 percent.

Labor has duplicated its mobilization efforts for nonmembers. America Coming Together, for example, has more than 4,000 paid, full-time workers in 13 states conducting similar outreach.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, with 1.5 million members, is spending $3 million on a new program targeting unmarried nonmembers. The "Hope and Vote" effort includes pro-Kerry e-mails, mailings and phone calls to these voters on issues such as health care, wages and the need for more educational opportunities. Another new program is aimed at child care workers, whom AFSCME hopes to eventually unionize.

"It's all about the ground war now," said AFSCME President Gerald McEntee.

AFSCME, with many members in key states such as Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, is spending nearly $50 million on getting out the vote. The union's goal was to mobilize 70 percent of its members for Kerry, but McEntee thinks it could hit 73 percent.

"A well-worn veteran" of many presidential campaigns, "I have never seen this engagement, this excitement, this enthusiasm at these meetings, at these rallies," said McEntee, in Las Vegas after a Kerry rally. He was in Oregon the day before, and was on his way to New Mexico, and then to Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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