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Unions and women: Democrats' last line of defense

By Deirdre Walsh and Brianna Keilar, CNN
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attended the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit in Washington in early October.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attended the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit in Washington in early October.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visits the "Women of Steel" conference Monday
  • Aim is mobilizing women labor advocates to re-elect "worker-friendly candidates"
  • Steelworkers says voters are frustrated because the economy hasn't turned around yet

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- If Democrats hope to retain their majority in Congress, it could take some "Women of Steel" to fire up the party faithful and get them to the polls on November 2.

Mary Jane Holland is one of 1,000 female members of the United Steelworkers gathered here to talk about how to mobilize her labor colleagues to re-elect what she calls "worker-friendly candidates" across the country.

She made the trip to Pittsburgh from West Bend, Wisconsin, where she is the president of her local USW chapter. She's been spending weekends knocking on doors, sending out voter information and urging fellow union members to vote.

"People hear negative things, and we're trying to be positive and trying to make sure they understand how these [candidates] are working for them day in and day out," Holland said.

She conceded many voters are upset because President Obama and congressional Democrats haven't turned a bad economy around yet, but she said they need to be patient.

Video: Democrats' last line of defense?

"Are we going to achieve everything in 18 months? No we're not going to. We know it is a slow process, just like women coming up in the union."

Tonya DeVore-Foreman is from Michigan, which has a 13.1 percent unemployment rate, the second-highest in the country. She said the sluggish economy is a reason to stick with candidates who back labor -- usually Democrats, she notes -- not reject them.

"We're losing our manufacturing base every day. The manufacturing base decreases, the loss of jobs continues to grow. And we feel it is very important to get labor-friendly, working-family-friendly candidates in office."

These are the women House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was trying to energize Monday when she visited the "Women of Steel" conference. She entered the convention ballroom to loud cheering and Tina Turner's "Simply the Best" blaring over the speakers. Women stood up, waving signs that said, "Best Speaker Ever."

It was a warm reception for a politician who has become a liability for many Democrats this election season. According to a recent CNN-Opinion Research Corporation poll, more than half of Americans have an unfavorable impression of Pelosi. She has kept a low profile on the campaign trail this year, traveling the country fundraising, rather than doing public appearances with Democratic candidates.

Speaking to this friendly audience in Pittsburgh, Pelosi was able to do something many Democrats have avoided this cycle -- touting legislative victories on health care reform and Wall Street regulation and accusing Republicans of wanting to return to the Bush era.

"It's a choice, as the president said, of moving America forward or going back to the failed policies. I've said it before, I'll say it again: We're not going back and we're not going back and we're going to win because the Women of Steel, the Women of Steel are going to help us lead the way in our country to that great victory," Pelosi said.

The problem for Democrats is that the enthusiasm in this room is not necessarily shared by other Democratic voters.

A recent CNN-Opinion Research Corporation poll shows women, who tend to support Democratic candidates over Republicans, are much less inspired to head to the polls than their male counterparts, who generally favor GOP candidates.

Thirty-eight percent of likely male voters said they were "extremely enthusiastic" about voting in the midterm elections, compared with just 23 percent of women who rated themselves the same way.

But DeVore-Foreman pushes back at polls showing voters who rallied for Obama in 2008 might be less enthusiastic now, saying union members will succeed in firing up those Americans.

"Polls talk about likely voters. One of the things we're gonna do is we're gonna bring people who weren't reached in those polls, and get them to vote. Because when working people vote, our voice is heard," DeVore-Foreman said.

She's reaching out to fellow union members, sending postcards to workers in other states with competitive races, reminding them how important these elections will be to pushing the labor agenda through Congress.

While these women know people are disheartened by the stalled economy, they remain confident that their efforts will turn the tide for Democrats on Election Day.

"People have been sitting back, waiting and looking looking and investigating," Holland said. "And when the election comes around, I think you'll see it especially in the union vote. I think they're gonna come out and vote, and it's gonna make the difference.