Labors fight against racism has impact

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Obama holds 10 pt. lead among lower income white workers

CHICAGO — The leaders of America’s labor movement are calling upon white union members to put aside any racial biases that could undermine Barack Obama’s labor-supported effort to become President of the United States. The AFL-CIO, at its executive council meeting here Aug. 5, echoed similar calls put forward recently by leaders of the Steelworkers and the Miners unions.

If recent polls are indicative the effort is working. Obama has a 10-point lead over McCain among white workers earning less than $27,000 per year and a two-to-one lead over McCain among all workers in this category. An Aug. 4, Washington Post poll shows Obama out-performing both John Kerry who lost the white vote by 17 points in 2004 and Al Gore who lost the white vote by 12 points in 2000. The last Democratic candidate for president to win a majority of the white vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Poll numbers are not lining up with pundits’ interpretations that Obama was weak among “blue collar whites,” particularly in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. In each of those states local polls also show Obama doing much better among white workers than either Kerry or Gore. In the overall head-to-head matchups with McCain in those states, Obama also leads.

Not coincidentally, observers note, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan are states where unions have been particularly active.

Every miner in Pennsylvania has received a brochure from the United Mine Workers entitled, “Which Side Are You On?” In the brochure Cecil Roberts, the union’s president, says, “We must pull together and support the candidate for president who is on our side – Barack Obama. This is at the core of what it means to be a member of our union.”

Even before its executive council meeting, the leadership of the 10 million-member AFL-CIO plunged into the fight against racial bias.

“There’s not a single good reason for any worker – especially any union member – to vote against Barack Obama,” federation Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka told the Steelworkers Convention in Las Vegas last month.

“There’s only one really bad reason to vote against him: because he’s not white,” he said.

In Indiana, the AFL-CIO has identified 30,000 unregistered union members who it plans to register as voters and talk to about Obama.

Pundits who minimize the importance of union activity in the election by pointing out that only one in eight workers are unionized ignore the fact that high voter turnout rates among union members gives them disproportionate strength.

Union households are expected to account for one in four votes cast in November – and one in three votes in key states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

At the AFL-CIO executive council meeting, the union leaders approved deployment of 250,000 volunteers and spending of $250 million for grass roots campaigning on behalf of Obama and 500 other candidates vying for national, state and municipal posts.

The 2008 elections have served to unite unions that have, at times, disagreed on other issues. The two large federations, AFL-CIO and Change to Win, are coordinating their efforts. The Service Employees International Union, growing rapidly as a result of organizing campaigns among low wage workers, is spending $85 million and dovetailing its efforts with those of the AFL-CIO. SEIU, which together with several other unions left the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form Change to Win, is now working for Obama alongside AFL-CIO unions in many locations.

Union leaders are saying they are proud of the racial diversity of their organizations and that confronting members about biases is, essentially, their special responsibility.

“We’re going straight at our people and talking to them about the differences between McCain and Obama and the fact that race could be an issue – you go straight at it,” said Gerald McEntee, head of the AFL-CIO’s political committee.

Beyond the presidency, labor aims to achieve a Democratic sweep, increasing the party’s majority in both the House and Senate. Unions expect that the bigger majorities will enact more favorable tax policies for workers, some form of universal health care, reconsideration of trade agreements and measures that will slow the export of American jobs.

The AFL-CIO executive council says it will draft a post election program to hold labor backed candidates who win

accountable.

The signature measure labor hopes to enact is the Employee Free Choice Act, a law that would reduce the ability of employers to block union organizing efforts. Obama supports the EFCA while McCain opposes it.

Wal-Mart and companies like it are particularly worried about the EFCA. The retail giant has already forced its employees to attend propaganda sessions against the EFCA and against the election of Obama. The AFL-CIO executive council noted that Wal-Mart’s 1.2 million employees are a potentially huge pro-EFCA and pro-Obama voting block.

Based on the upsurge of union activity, it appears that labor sees the result of these elections as critical to ushering in a new era for the labor movement.

“You get somebody like Obama in there and I think it’s a different side of the coin,” McEntee said.

jwojcik@pww.org