E-mails and faxes are faster and less risky, but also are seen as less effective.
By CRAIG LINDER
STATES NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- When it comes time to grab lawmakers' attention, labor union lobbyists brag that they possess one powerful weapon: thousands of members and retirees willing to mail a letter or postcard supporting the union's position.
Anthrax, though, has changed all that.
With one Senate office building closed as workers scurry to clear it of the potentially deadly bacteria and the sea of letters that floods Capitol Hill on a normal day trapped in a postal limbo, labor unions have had to scramble to ensure that their members' voices are heard.
For many labor unions and other groups that rely on grass-roots efforts to make their cases in Washington, that has meant a switch from the handwritten letters that often are the cornerstone of an effective lobbying campaign to e-mails, faxes and phone calls -- methods that are more immediate and carry few fears of anthrax contamination.
"Everybody's been affected in some way," said Tim Waters, national grass-roots lobbying coordinator for the United Steelworkers of America. "For us, it has presented some logistical problems, and we've gone to e-mails and phone calls a lot more."
The downside: What those e-mails and phone calls offer in immediacy, though, they often lack in influence. Mail, after all, sits on an aide's desk virtually crying out to be opened; e-mail and phone messages are easier to ignore.
Grass-roots activists long have said that short of a face-to-face meeting with a representative or a top staff member, the best way to get a lawmaker's attention on an issue is to have a constituent send a well-thought-out handwritten letter laying out their position.
Trying to get a message through to a Congress that has seen its mail service shuttered because of contamination, however, is not a situation for which most organizations have planned. As a result, the less-effective e-mails and phone calls have a great deal of appeal for labor union activists such as Waters.
"The phone calls don't take as much effort, and they're not viewed as strongly, but we can generate them quickly," he said. "What we don't want is a personal note to the congressman from a retiree or a member arriving on his desk two days after the legislation was voted on."
Sent elsewhere: Because Rep. Pete Visclosky's office on Capitol Hill has not received postal deliveries in more than a month, the Indiana Democrat's constituents, many of whom work in the steel industry, have mailed most of their correspondence to Visclosky's district offices. Employees in those offices then fax the letters they receive to the Washington office.
Spokesman Cliston Brown said Visclosky's Washington office has seen an increase in phone calls as well as faxes and e-mails since anthrax was first discovered on Capitol Hill on Oct. 15.
Waters said there are advantages to the Steelworkers union's newfound reliance on telephone calls to lawmakers -- there always seems to be a phone nearby.
"We have our members call right from the shop floor," Waters said. "We have folks lined up at the pay phones in the mills to call Congress."