Voice for labor takes a pause

Greg Nash

 

Denise Mitchell is preparing to relinquish one of Washington’s most powerful megaphones.

A driving force behind the AFL-CIO message machine through three presidential administrations, Mitchell has been at the forefront of countless political and policy fights, from the Medicare standoffs of the mid-1990s to recent spats over unemployment benefits.

She is credited with transforming the labor giant’s communications apparatus from an assemblage of faxes and phone trees into a formidable digital organizing operation able to mobilize union workers by the thousands in real time.

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After 18 years as special assistant to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and former President John Sweeney before him, Mitchell will step down from her post at month’s end to tend to a family illness.

Eric Hauser, the president of a large public-interest communications firm, will take over as strategic adviser and communications director.

In some ways, Mitchell is leaving the nation’s largest labor federation as she found it: embroiled in seemingly endless battles over retirement security, education and fair pay issues. 

But she sees meaning in Washington’s constant tug of war.

“You win a minimum wage fight and then it atrophies again and you have to refight that,” Mitchell told The Hill. “But it’s work that makes a difference in peoples’ lives.”

Mitchell grew up in a town called Hickory, in the hills of western North Carolina. The region has periodically been home to some of the nation’s highest jobless rates, and she was aware of worker issues from an early age.

She recalls, as a child of maybe 3, being told that her father had been fired from a job.

“I thought it meant something like he was burning up,” she said.

Her father wasn’t out of work for long. Others weren’t as lucky, as the area’s primary industry — furniture manufacturing — gradually moved overseas.

She arrived in Washington in November of 1980 with a limited background in marketing and a desire to become a part of something important. Together with her husband, Mitchell rented a house in Georgetown and set about competing for a job against the throngs of Carter administration workers who flooded the job market after being displaced by the election of Ronald Reagan.

Ultimately, the couple went into consulting and started a small firm that did work for unions and progressive nonprofits. Years later she found herself “on loan” to the Service Employees International Union’s Washington headquarters. And when Sweeney left the union in 1995 to become the AFL-CIO’s chief, he took Mitchell along as special assistant to the president. She has retained the title since, though the job has evolved dramatically over the years.

From the beginning, Mitchell was on the front lines of some of the country’s largest debates.

In late 1995, the government shut down after congressional Republicans, led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), sent President Clinton a budget slashing funding for Medicare and other government programs.

Mitchell recalls tromping across Lafayette Park in the snow to a meeting at the White House, where she and her colleagues implored administration officials to “hold the line” on Medicare. Ultimately, Clinton didn’t budge, and the shutdown ended in January 1996.

“We felt like we had a pretty big influence on them,” she said.

That following year, Mitchell’s team went on offense in an effort to take Republican lawmakers to task over policies that led to the shutdown, targeting roughly 35 GOP-held seats in the 1996 election.

Mitchell helped to oversee a coordinated ad campaign focusing on the Republican record. Among the people she tapped was Chicago-based political consultant David Axelrod, who was interested in doing work for the labor movement.

“I feel like I did some of my best work for her, and largely because of her,” Axelrod told The Hill. “It wasn’t just a gig for her. It was a cause.”

 

Denise Mitchell is preparing to relinquish one of Washington’s most powerful megaphones.

Mitchell and Axelrod collaborated on ads designed to juxtapose GOP issue positions with their real-world implications, including a spot seizing on Gingrich’s assertion that Medicare would “wither on the vine.”

Axelrod, who would later become a top adviser to candidate and President Barack Obama, said Mitchell was ahead of her time in terms of her understanding of the importance of research and polling data.

In short, he said, Mitchell brought “contemporary communication” to an organization used to doing things in an “old-fashioned” way.

Formed in 1955, the AFL-CIO has long been the country’s largest labor federation, representing dozens of unions and millions of workers across the country. When Mitchell arrived, the federation’s communications operations consisted of a biweekly print newspaper called AFL-CIO News, and a weekly fax containing the latest news on the day’s top worker issues.

The federation had grown significantly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but had not adjusted to advances in technology — especially in terms of its communications operation.

“It was a pretty slow, passive institution,” Mitchell said. “It began to change under Sweeney, and I think Rich [Trumka] accelerated that.”

She quickly scrapped the paper in favor of a magazine titled America at Work, which was later brought online.

Today, the federation boasts a daily blog email that goes out to roughly 70,000 people, and a massive online program designed to generate action, whether urging members to call their congressional representative ahead of an important vote or to get people to a rally thousands of miles outside the Beltway.

After taking her leave from the AFL-CIO this month, Mitchell intends to pursue “soul nourishing” projects, perhaps involving the social change and children’s issues that first drew her to town.

But she said she remains devoted to the labor movement’s message that she took large part in shaping over the last two decades.

 

“I quickly learned after we moved to Washington that actually if you really wanted to make change, unions are one of the few really big institutions that can make changes,” she said. “Despite all the good work that’s been done, the voice of working people is still nowhere near what it should be in this country.”