Unions Talk Race as Election Nears


Labor leaders who want desperately to chase the Republicans from the White House are confronting a hurdle in their outreach to members: the question of race. Obama's record on economic issues, they say, should put him way ahead of John McCain with working-class voters. But will the facts be enough to overcome some members' deep-seated prejudice?

"We have people disguise it by saying he doesn't have enough experience, or they're not comfortable voting for him," says Kyle McDermott, field director in the Steelworkers' political department. "And we have people come at us and say, 'Look, I'm not going to vote for a black person.' They don't use as kind words as I just did."

Henry Nicholas, a vice president in the public employees union AFSCME, tells of a white member at a Philadelphia hospital who a few weeks ago hung a noose up at work. (He was fired.)

"There's nobody in America," he says, "who, when they have their thinking caps on, believes that racism has disappeared. This [election] is an opportunity to overcome it and deal with it. It won't disappear unless we work on getting rid of it."

The Union Vote Matters

Union households were 24 percent of the electorate in 2004. That year, as in 1996 and 2000, union-household voters went 59 percent for the Democrat. AFL-CIO says 65 percent of union members casting a ballot chose John Kerry over George Bush.

After years of all-out effort, with hundreds of millions of dollars and untold staff time poured into campaigning, it might be hard to be believe that only 59 percent of voters in union households members pull the lever for a Democrat.

In 2000 and 2004, that wasn't enough. Winning union voters and their families by an even larger margin is crucial to Obama's chances to win the presidency this year. Pat Gillespie, president of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, says, "You'd think it would be a 70-30 split, but it's almost even, and the only reason I can attribute it to is the color of his skin."

And in a special edition of his union's newsletter, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), bemoaned polls that show union members too close to splitting their votes down the middle.

"Why then is it close?" Gage asked. "Many, including me, think race. Union leaders have felt the sting of anonymous e-mails and coded language at union meetings."

What Tack to Take?

A September 8-10 national poll of likely voters by Democracy Corps found that in white union households, Obama gets 44 percent of the vote, 8 points below the local Democratic candidate for Congress and 9 points below the number of those who identify as Democrats. In 2004 white union households backed John Kerry by a 52.4 percent margin.

At the August meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council, talk was unusually frank about the need to deal with the race question. But what to do?

Jeff Crosby, head of a central labor council near Boston, says, "There's two approaches -- one is just to talk about the class issues, not race. The other is more complicated: let's talk about race.

"In any legislative campaign we have this issue. It's the one moment people are actually willing to talk. Do you try to do education in that teachable moment? Or do you just try to get the vote?"

Most unions are trying to get the vote by any means necessary, but some see this election as part of unions' responsibility to challenge racism, whether it's in the voting booth or in the shop.

"You've got to break down all of those barriers that stop us from respecting the guy we work next to," said Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO.

Speaking to the Steelworkers convention in July, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka said, "There's no evil that's inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism -- and it's something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge."

The Steelworkers are instructing their political activists how to deal with bogus charges made against Obama, from the flag-pin flap to "is he a Muslim?"

One of the Steelworkers' talking points, "Racism," says, "There are a thousand good reasons to support Barack Obama, and one really bad reason to not support him -- and that's the color of his skin."

Organizers are then instructed to "pivot back" to the union's key economic talking points on jobs, trade, and health care.

"In 2004 we had the wedge issues -- guns, God, and gays," McDermott says. "Unions don't have a position on those pieces, so our message to our membership and activists was always, 'Don't talk about those issues.'

"But the blatant falsehoods out there about Obama -- we have talked to our members and trained our activists to address them but then work our way back to the issues we care most about as a union."

The 2.5-million-member AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department polled its members in battleground states and found Obama leading McCain 55-30 percent -- not enough. To discover the pressure points, it held focus groups with white members who were leaning to McCain or undecided.

The department then produced and distributed a video in which a white painter from Chicago tells viewers that getting the best man is what's important, not his skin color.

Indirect Mail

Many union campaigners for Obama, though, are reluctant even to raise the race question. They fear they'd put fence-sitters on the defensive, which could backfire.

As Trumka told the Steelworkers, "I don't think we should be out there pointing fingers in people's faces and calling them racist."

Bill Lucy, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME, says, "We recognize that people might have a problem with [Obama's race], but you can't focus on trying to correct it because you don't know who they are!

"The big game plan is to go to people with the issues. McCain is opposed to everything they want. The core issues are strong enough to outweigh the latent racism that exists."

If past trends hold, white union members will vote Democratic in greater proportions than the general white population. The question is, how much greater?

Whether their unions address race head on, sideways, or not at all, it's clear that members will have a lot more on their minds than pocketbook issues on November 4.

Says Sharon Pinnock, organizing director for AFGE, "The last couple of elections the fear has been about the terrorist threat. Whether we have some members out there who have a different kind of fear -- that can be just as dangerous."

Paul Abowd, Mischa Gaus, and Tiffany Ten Eyck contributed to this article.

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