Wooing Unions for Obama

Wooing Unions for Obama

Unions are trying to combat racism and sway undecided working-class voters toward Obama.



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.

But there are problems–and opportunities. Voter identification and the views of independents have shifted toward the Democrats in recent years. That trend suggests that Obama should be doing better, but he still lags among self-identified Democrats. Much of the resistance comes from older whites. But it also comes from specific regions like Appalachia, as AFSCME (public employee) union president Gerald McEntee argues, or Macomb County, the largely white Catholic Detroit suburb whose residents epitomized working-class Reagan Democrats. Pollster Stanley Greenberg returned in July and found Obama trailing McCain by seven points, doing worse than either Gore or Kerry had done. Macomb County’s white union members favored Obama–but only by a 47 percent to 34 percent margin.

Polls of union members over the summer typically showed that they supported McCain less or about the same as Bush in 2004, but compared with four years ago, there was a larger fraction of undecided union voters. “Among folks who feel they know something about him, he’s winning by more than two to one among union members,” says AFL-CIO deputy political director Michael Podhorzer. “Among those who don’t know much, he’s only ahead by a few points. In our minds it’s coming down to a persuasion election” to reach undecided voters, most of whom dislike Bush.

Like many undecideds, Macomb voters were “less comfortable” with the idea of Obama as president than with a generic Democrat or McCain. It’s easy to translate discomfort as prejudice, but Greenberg argues that race is a diminishing factor for Macomb voters.

In decades past, surveys on racial attitudes–whatever their flaws–showed that better-educated Americans believed fewer racial stereotypes and expressed more sympathy for policies to redress past discrimination than people with less education. Now the groups have converged, according to University of Illinois sociologist Maria Krysan, with both groups rejecting stereotypes but also rejecting redress. To the extent that racism is still a problem, it’s most likely more evenly distributed by class, perhaps more concentrated among middle-income workers. But race clearly remains a problem for Obama. At least 6 percent of likely voters in a late August Washington Post poll expressed strong discomfort with a black president. Conservative politicians also win support when they promote some positions that are not explicitly racial–like acting tough on crime or disparaging aid to cities–because they trigger lingering subconscious racial resentment.

The new climate on race means that white voters want to be sure Obama is a champion for everyone, not just blacks, Greenberg observes; Macomb voters largely, but not fully, see him that way. Recent research (such as Harvard postdoctoral fellow Daniel Hopkins’s study of 133 elections from 1986 to 2006) suggests that the infamous Bradley effect–voters telling pollsters they are undecided or support a black candidate but voting for a white in the polling booth–is probably diminishing. For example, although ads with a clear racial subtext hurt Harold Ford in his 2006 bid for the Senate in Tennessee, his final vote slightly exceeded the last pre-election polls. The Republicans can exploit subterranean racial fears by portraying Obama as “the other,” but if their appeals are too overt, they could backfire, especially among women.

Union leaders are engaged in a frank debate about how to deal with the issue of race as they drum up support for Obama. “Obviously in the United States, whether union members or not, at a conscious or unconscious level, race is a significant factor in this election,” Podhorzer says. “But I don’t think it’s bigger, or smaller, for union members than the general public.”

Unions favor broad, class-based economic appeals, but many leaders have decided union members must confront racism directly. Steelworkers gave AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka a standing ovation at their convention when he told them, “There’s not a single good reason for any worker, especially any union member, to vote against Barack Obama. There’s only a bad reason: because he’s not white.”

But labor’s strategy for confronting the race issue reflects the complexity of people’s hesitations, which are not just racial, McEntee argues. For example, even though strong majorities agree with Obama that the Iraq War was a mistake and that we should withdraw troops as fast as possible, McCain has played the POW card to make himself the symbol of national security. And some voters identify with Sarah Palin and her union-member “first dude” as being more like them (even if they are more likely to think Obama cares about people like them). Unions want to recast the debate, transforming McCain into Bush III and focusing on his continuation of despised and, as is increasingly obvious, ruinous economic policies. Months before the AFL-CIO endorsed Obama in June, it began a campaign to debunk McCain’s maverick claim, linking him to Bush. At the same time, it attacked McCain’s record, especially his proposal to tax workers’ healthcare benefits as income. The AFL-CIO also established a Veterans Council to argue that whatever McCain did in Vietnam, he was no hero for working families–nor a supporter of adequate benefits for veterans.

Most important, “we’re talking about issues of economic self-interest,” says AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman–jobs, the right to organize unions, inequality, pensions, trade, healthcare. Union strategists want the Obama campaign to focus more on pocketbook issues. “Part of what he has to do is pound the economic message,” says one union official. “He has to say very specifically what kind of change he means, practical proposals that fundamentally change people’s lives and give their kids a better future.” The polling by Greenberg and Lake Research indicates that the Obama campaign can move many undecided white workers into his column with a strong populist economic message. But Laborers president Terry O’Sullivan says, “They’re doing what they need to do. I put the challenge on us to make sure our members understand what he stands for.”

“A lot of our members will have a hard time with the choice,” says Painters union president James Williams. “But when you put the issue of their paycheck and pension on the table, I think they’ll make the right decision.” As Greg Junemann, president of the Professional and Technical Engineers, says, “On every policy resolution in the last two conventions, Obama is with us, McCain against us. How could we say, ‘Yeah, but he’s black’? Obama walks the picket line. McCain doesn’t believe we should have picket lines.”

And at the same time, unions try to knock down the persistent rumors and to make union members see Obama as someone like them, who had to work hard for what he’s got. “There is some unease with Obama, as not a familiar entity,” Ackerman says. “We take that seriously and have created a program to give those voters a degree of comfort voting for Obama.”

The labor movement is making a massive effort, spending altogether almost $300 million for this political cycle, compared with around $200 million four years ago, according to McEntee. But it’s been frustrated by delays and divisions. The June AFL-CIO endorsement of Obama, coming after a long primary during which many union leaders favored Clinton or John Edwards, slowed the AFL-CIO effort to educate members about Obama.

Change to Win (CTW) unions, with a combined political budget of $125 million, endorsed Obama in February and began developing a more independent operation than in 2006, when the breakaway group relied more heavily on the AFL-CIO political program (as the Laborers, part of CTW, still do). The two federations have tensions in their relationship that sometimes make collaboration difficult. Differences over strategy, moreover, have cropped up within the AFL-CIO. In March, the Steelworkers, Auto Workers, Communications Workers and Professional and Technical Engineers formed the Alliance, a more workplace-focused campaign, to complement the AFL-CIO operation. “Just trying to go deeper,” as CWA president Larry Cohen explained, they also wanted to put more emphasis on trade, the Employee Free Choice Act (which would permit workers to unionize when a majority in a workplace sign up), healthcare and pensions. And they wanted to focus on Senate races, such as in Mississippi, where they might boost the Democratic majority to assure passage of EFCA. Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, whose union has trained an army of 10,000 activists who mobilize members at work, says, “This is not about division. We believe it’s a simple issue: a lot of our unions spend time together on the ground, and we concluded we could be more effective this way than simply doing Labor ’08 [the AFL-CIO program]. We’re going to do Labor ’08 plus more.”

Beyond the work on elections, unions are simultaneously attempting to build union member and public support for issues they hope an Obama administration will embrace, especially universal health insurance (though the proposals and strategies vary), the EFCA (unions plan to deliver 1 million signatures in support when Congress meets in January) and infrastructure investment. Then unions plan to shift their election mobilization into a movement to hold Congress and Obama accountable, assuming he is elected. For example, Anna Burger says that the Service Employees, after committing $5 million to the election, have budgeted $10 million for their accountability campaign.

In the final weeks, tens of thousands of union volunteers will leaflet their workplaces, phone union members and go door to door. The more personal the message, the more it’s repeated in different ways, the more it’s tailored to specific workers’ interests, the more persuasive it will be. And if AFL-CIO organizing director Stewart Acuff has his way, members will carry labor’s political message to nonunion neighbors as well. Within the limits of campaign finance laws, he argues, “We’ve got to see union members as important messengers in their communities.”

To a significant degree, Obama’s success will hinge on how well unions convert their wavering members. And much of their success will depend on workers like Connie Couch, a 49-year-old nurse, single mother and new union member who came out in the rain in Galesburg to knock on doors. “I want change. We really need change,” she explained. “I back Barack.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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