When your union contract expires Who do you want in the White House?

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — As 4,000 workers at Yale University gear up for a contract fight next year, and 2,000 workers at Yale New Haven Hospital continue their organizing drive, the question of who will be president looms large.

Asked “Who do you want in the White House when your union contract expires?” the answer was near unanimous for Barack Obama.

“I just know in my gut that Obama is interested in the well-being of common working people, and McCain is interested in the well-being of big business,” said Susan Klein, a worker in Yale’s library system.

Her gut feeling is echoed by a report on the AFL-CIO web site: “Obama backed working family issues 95 percent of the time in the U.S. Senate, while Sen. John McCain — who voted 95 percent with Bush against working family issues — sides with wealthy bankers and Wall Street.”

Ernie Thompson, a dining hall worker at the university, reflected on the coming contract negotiations. “We’re losing power every minute the Republicans are in office.” Most of his co-workers support Obama, but a few still need to be convinced to vote, said Thompson, who carries voter registration forms with him on the job. “They don’t believe in the political system. They’ve been had too many times.”

For those co-workers who are confused by extremist ads portraying Obama as unpatriotic and inexperienced, Thompson brings the facts about the candidates’ voting records. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm among the African Americans. Some white guys in the skilled trades had no problem with Bush, but a lot are coming over to our side because with the Republicans, unions and job security are out the window,” he said.

Tammy Porter, who works in the hospital cafeteria, supports Obama because “he’s down with the union.” Co-worker Mamie Evans said, “We’ve gotta have Barack to survive.” These workers, who have been trying to organize the hospital’s other departments into the union in the face of illegal management intimidation, are most concerned about passage of the Employee Free Choice Act to back up workers’ right to organize. Obama is a co-sponsor of the EFCA. McCain voted against it.

Food service worker Ray Milici described the stakes: “If we get a pro-labor president, we can change the labor board. We can pass the Employee Free Choice Act. McCain is anti-union. If McCain wins, there’s no chance for the rest of the workers at the hospital to get a union.”

Yale workers are also worried about protecting their health benefits. Their hard-won union contracts include full family health coverage at no cost. McCain’s health care proposal would tax those benefits, costing Yale workers up to $3,500 per year.

Union spokesperson Evan Cobb described this as “adding tax burden to us while shifting taxes off the wealthiest Americans.”

Unite Here, the parent union, was an early endorser of Obama. “It’s important to our international union to support a candidate who believes health care is a right,” said Cobb adding that McCain’s proposal would weaken the excellent health plan now enjoyed by union workers at Yale.

Cobb also addressed presidential appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. He cited the NLRB’s decision, under Clinton, affirming graduate teachers’ right to union representation. But the labor board appointed by Bush revoked those rights. At Yale, graduate teachers are still struggling for recognition.

After winning the congressional elections in 2006, “there’s a much greater sense of hope,” said Cobb. Union members are volunteering in Virginia, as well as locally. “People are aware of the relation between the federal election and the local impact at the community level.”

“The Republicans are stockpiling military weapons, but there’s nothing for heating assistance, schools, crime, environmental cleanup,” said Ernie Thompson. “We’ve lost all our afterschool programs, summer jobs for kids. The Republicans say there’s no money, but they bail out the financial companies.”

Obama’s experience as a community organizer who stresses workers’ involvement is encouraging to the Yale unions, who emphasize membership involvement to organize co-workers and build alliances with the New Haven community,

The unions say their commitment to organizing will continue after Election Day, providing grassroots muscle to pass EFCA.

Milici thinks the election outcome will have an impact on workers’ attitudes: “If McCain wins, the employer will feel empowered. If Obama wins, the workers will feel empowered.”

Thompson agreed: “We need a victory. If Obama wins, people will say we’ve got a voice now.” This will help mobilizing the membership for the next contract negotiations.