Working on winning union vote in Nevada

— -- Luz Padilla Velasquez may not look like your typical union shop steward.

The 26-year-old mother of three, a Mexican immigrant who recently became a U.S. citizen, doesn't work in a factory or a mill or a manufacturing plant. She's a housekeeper in a hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

She's also on the front line of an army of union reps working member by member to turn out voters throughout Nevada, a battleground state in the race for the White House and a vanguard in the new generation of the nation's labor movement.

For Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who is seeking to wrest Nevada from Republicans for the first time since 1996, labor unions have become a formidable turnout force targeting some of the constituencies most important to his campaign: Latino voters and women.

Velasquez is one of hundreds of paid union canvassers working to identify, influence and turn out more than 100,000 voters.

In Nevada, where presidential elections traditionally are very close, that organization could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

"It could be a very positive factor for Obama," says Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada-Reno. "When labor gets motivated, they are an important force."

Until recently, opinion polls had marked Nevada as a true tossup state throughout the matchup between Obama and Republican nominee John McCain. As recently as Oct. 19, a Politico-Insider Advantage poll had the race deadlocked at 47%.

The latest polls show Obama starting to pull ahead. A Rasmussen Reports poll conducted Monday showed Obama up 50% to 46%, and a Reuters-Zogby poll done last Thursday through Sunday had Obama leading 48% to 44%.

An Associated Press-Gfk Roper poll conducted Oct. 22-25 had Obama up by as much as 12 points.

President Bush won the state twice. In 2000, Bush won Nevada with 50% of the vote to 46% for Vice President Gore. In 2004, Bush beat Sen. John Kerry 50% to 48%.

Nevada is one of only a handful of states where union membership is growing, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. From 2004 to 2007, union membership grew from 126,000 workers to 182,000 workers.

Unlike traditional manufacturing-based economies, Nevada's service-based industry has proved fertile ground for union organizers.

As a result, more than 15% of the workforce is represented by unions, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. More important for Obama, union households accounted for 26% of the vote in the 2006 statewide election, according to exit polls.

Also, unlike traditional union-dense states such as Michigan or Pennsylvania, the demographics of Nevada's union membership are largely Latino and female, says David MacPherson, an economics professor at Florida State University who tracks labor statistics.

Velasquez, who will be voting for the first time since earning her citizenship, says she was won over by Obama's life story.

"He was raised by a single mom and his grandparents," she says. "I come from a mom like that. My mom raised us, seven of us, and she was the only one working.

"When we got old enough, we would work part time — at least to get enough money to pay for the electricity or so that she didn't have to worry about buying us new shoes next month."

It's a story Velasquez can tell at the door, to both Spanish- and English-speaking voters. Velasquez, and others like her, also work for Obama in break rooms and work sites across the state.

The McCain campaign acknowledges it's up against a "big union force" in the state. But spokesman Rick Gorka argues that's countered by a stronger economic message from McCain.

Nevada has been hit harder than many states by the tumbling economy. Its foreclosure rate leads the nation, according to RealtyTrac.

Stalled construction projects mark the Las Vegas Strip, and unemployment has soared above the national average to 7.3%, according to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

"Obama wants to punish hardworking men and women for their success by raising taxes, as opposed to saying that's your money," Gorka says. "That's such a backward way of looking at government."

It's a message that resonates with some of the same blue-collar workers that labor unions are seeking to coax to Obama's side.

"I don't want to be taxed," says April Haas, a press operator who owns a small shop in Reno. "If taxes are raised any more, it'll put me out of business."

She acknowledges she doesn't earn more than $250,000, Obama's target income for a tax increase. "But that doesn't mean I won't one day," she adds.

Damon reports for the Reno Gazette-Journal