CHICAGO (PAI)–Facing the fact that many unionists may be reluctant to vote for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for the presidency because he is African-American, union leaders meeting in Chicago decided to confront that issue head-on by repeatedly emphasizing to members to “vote your jobs” and that economics trumps race.

In a closed-door meeting August 4 of the AFL-CIO Political Committee, the day before the federation’s 2-day Executive Council meeting in Chicago, the other leaders were challenged on the issue by Postal Workers President Bill Burrus, himself African-American, several participants, including Burrus, told Press Associates Union News Service. “We got them thinking,” Burrus adds.

Initial discussion skirted the issue, until retiring AFT President Ed McElroy said the Obama campaign “had an inability to address issues that made it difficult for his members” to vote for the Illinoisan. In the Democratic primaries, over the objections of its Illinois affiliate and others, AFT backed Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). “I disagreed, and said it was race,” Burrus said.

He also confirmed he specifically declared: “This is a bunch of ____. It’s about race.” After laying out the case union leaders must lead, he was vigorously applauded.

Burrus told his colleagues how Obama’s historic campaign is a milestone on a par with the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision and Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech. Burrus reminded them that even his own union had separate black and white locals when he joined, in 1954.

He also noted Obama “cannot win if he portrays himself as a victim,” and that the union movement must take the lead in educating its members and retirees, notably its older white members. Top Obama campaign officials David Axelrod and David Plouffe made that point to the council on August 5, said Political Director Karen Ackerman.

“They made a strong presentation about the need to talk about economic issues. And we have a developing relationship so they understand the value and importance of the labor movement in reaching those voters” who are resistant to Obama, she added.
More than half of all voters in the U.S., Burrus pointed out, “have never had the opportunity to vote for or against an African-American” in a general election “and now they’re being asked to do so” for the highest office in the land. “And, subconsciously, we’re all a product of our upbringing,” he added.

“My point is not to engage in a ‘blame game’” Burrus said, but to get the leaders to constructively think about how to educate members to fairly consider Obama and vote for him over the presumed GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

While individual unions and union leaders must figure out how to do that themselves, tailoring their messages to their memberships, the AFL-CIO set out to do so in two ways. First, it defined McCain in terms of his anti-worker record. Then, after the federation’s endorsement, it started introducing Obama–and his pro-worker policies–to its members, added Political Director Karen Ackerman in a subsequent interview.

It has already done precinct walks and distributed hundreds of thousands of flyers detailing how McCain has voted for every job-losing trade treaty, opposes workers’ rights and raising the minimum wage, and would tax your health care.

The point, she said, was to drive down the Arizonan’s positive numbers, even before the Democrats settled on Obama. In February, she noted, polling done for the AFL-CIO showed 57% of union members–like the wider electorate–had an image of McCain as an independent “straight talker,” a maverick and someone who bucked GOP President George W. Bush. Bush is known for his anti-worker extremism.

By the time the spring and summer of leafleting, precinct walks and even face-to-face challenges with union members showing up opposite McCain events to ask pointed questions, were complete, McCain’s favorability rating has fallen “to the mid-thirties.”
On economic issues Obama takes uniformly pro-worker stands. But they’re often overridden by gut reactions. There were no hard estimates on how great a percentage of unionists would let race, not economics, decide their votes. Burrus pushed the leaders to acknowledge the problem.

So the consensus, as participants put it, was that union leaders must emphasize to their members, allies and families, face-to-face and over and over, that economics comes first. And if unionists want to preserve their jobs against the business onslaught, aided and abetted by the GOP, they must vote for Obama.

As one put it, leaders, who have the credibility with their members, must tell them that otherwise “they’re voting against themselves. We have to speak up and say so.”

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard L. Trumka has hit the issue a month before. Trumka gave a blunt speech emphasizing that economics-over-race theme, to the Steel Workers convention in Las Vegas. He has received letters and e-mails since. “You’re asking me to do something I can’t do,” the writers say. The answer, as one other leader put it, was to tell unionists, over and over, that the pro-worker policies Obama backs would help them, while linking McCain to Bush.