Union retirees turning Florida from red to blue

FORT MEYERS, Fla. — Labor activists in this very Republican area of Florida are feeling traction in their efforts to elect Barack Obama president. The Alliance of Retired Americans (ARA), United Auto Workers retirees and other union activists held a rousing rally here this week to urge turnout to elect the first African American president. Fort Meyers, located on the southwestern coast, is part of Lee County, which went 52 percent for Bush in 2004.

According to most polls, Obama leads John McCain by 5 points in this “red” state.

The ARA announced its endorsement of Obama in several key battleground states including Florida. In a state known for attracting millions of retirees, the endorsement by ARA is no small matter. It is a national retirees organization that includes many affiliated union retiree organizations and works closely with the AFL-CIO and other labor-related groups.

Speakers at the rally here stressed McCain’s horrible record, mirroring George Bush’s policies on Social Security, labor rights, health care, energy and even veterans’ affairs. In contrast, Obama’s record on these issues shows clear pro-retiree, pro-union leadership, speakers said.

Rally speakers also put front and center the key issue that would keep some union retirees from voting for Obama, namely racial prejudice. Like efforts in many other conservative areas of the country, supporters here are finding that a direct approach to the problem of racism is getting a heartening response from workers. Not since the 1930s, when the battle cry of the Congress of Industrial Organizations was “Black and White, Unite and Fight,” has labor’s voice for unity and equality been so loud and demanding.

Bob McNatt, president of the UAW’s Southwest Florida Retired Workers Council, made it clear that working people can’t allow themselves to be blinded by prejudice. “We have to vote for our real interests!” he told the rally. “And you have to talk to your neighbors, your sisters, your children, your cousins and your union buddies about this.”

The hall echoed with cheers and “Amens.” As one retiree put it afterwards, “What I’m hearing is we want a Black friend in the White House, not a white enemy.”

It is clear from efforts here that unions are in full gear in these last few weeks until the election. Earlier in the week, in a national United Steelworkers activists conference call, the union’s president, Leo Gerard, told participants that more than 8,000 full-time USW volunteers are in the field and said that number will reach 10,000 deployed before Election Day — especially in battleground states. Volunteer workers throughout the labor movement have been involved in discussions and educational forums on how to talk to fellow members about Obama.

This summer AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka lit up the USW’s national convention with his call to fight racism, saying, “There’s no evil that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism.” He reminded the cheering delegates of labor’s special responsibility to fight for class unity because, “We know, better than anyone else, how racism is used to divide working people.” As the Fort Myers rally well illustrated, his speech set off a storm of labor activity throughout the nation.

Trumka’s speech has become a primer for labor activists. As reported last week at pww.org, it has taken on a life of its own on the Internet. Blogs, YouTube videos and e-mails have been burning the electrons circulating the speech and spreading the word.

In addition to mobilizing for Obama, labor is also putting great emphasis on the House and Senate races. Besides labor walks, phone-banking and workplace contact, in key Senate races unions are hosting “worker roundtables” to step up support and mobilization. There is growing confidence that a filibuster-proof Senate is within reach. Several Senate seats that just a few months ago were considered safe by the GOP are now in play. Labor activists around the country report a rising sense that real change is at hand.