On a rainy afternoon in early September, Jeff Ampey, a member of the Communications Workers union, knocked on the door of Frances Brady’s home in Galesburg, part of the historically conservative “Dutch Triangle” in southwest Michigan. He was walking through the neighborhood as part of an AFL-CIO effort to contact union members about the presidential election.
Brady, an 81-year-old former paper worker who retired before most of the area’s many paper mills closed, said she was “not 100 percent sure” about whom she would support. Ampey politely left some brochures–one rebutting common false rumors about Barack Obama (such as that he’s a Muslim), the other about Obama “building an economy that works for all.”
When I called back the next day, Brady had made up her mind. “I’m a Democrat in my heart,” she said. “Last time I voted for Bush, and I said I’d never vote for them again. I’ve got a grandson who was in Afghanistan three years, and they could call him back. On the economy, I think Bush looks the other way. Obama, I’m a little bit unsure sometimes because he doesn’t have experience, but he’s for the average American person and the poor, and I think he’s a very smart man.”
There are a lot of wavering voters, especially older whites like Brady, who lean Democratic but aren’t sure about Obama. In the final weeks of the campaign, the labor movement could play a critical role in winning them over and tipping the race. Despite their dwindling ranks, voters from union households make up about a quarter of the electorate (in this battleground state, that figure is around 37 percent). Organized labor can also reach out to the 2.5 million members of Working America, the AFL-CIO’s new community affiliate, as well as to millions of retirees like Brady (many of whom will learn from the union-affiliated Alliance for Retired Americans that McCain wants to privatize Social Security).
Union membership–and labor’s education and mobilization efforts–make a big difference in how people vote. In the 2006 House elections, for example, white men voted Republican by nine points, according to Hart Research, but white men who were union members favored Democrats by thirty-nine points.
But this election, with the nation’s first African-American presidential candidate, is different. Since Obama polls lower than a generic Democrat and lost the white working-class vote to Hillary Clinton in key primaries, many analysts wonder whether Obama has a white working-class problem that could jeopardize his bid for the presidency. The answer is up in the air–and much depends on the labor movement’s political operation this fall.
It’s worth remembering that no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white votes since 1964. And today, with the growing Latino and Asian populations, Obama needs only to do well–but not necessarily win–among white workers. Late summer polls showed that Obama was scoring better among all whites than Kerry or Gore did, winning more support from lower-income than high-income voters, leading McCain 47 percent to 37 percent among low-wage white workers (in an August Washington Post poll). According to an August Lake Research poll for the Change to Win labor federation, white nonsupervisory workers younger than 65 were split evenly between Obama and McCain, with 13 percent undecided. So there are signs that Obama is doing relatively well among white working-class voters after all.