Labor leaders back Obama, but will members?

By Andrew Stern
Reuters
Friday, August 8, 2008; 8:14 AM

CHICAGO (Reuters) - American labor leaders are urging their white working class members to put aside racial biases that could undermine Barack Obama's union-backed bid to become the United States' first black president.

Recent elections have shown Democrats with a populist message could rely on strong support from union households.

But Obama's late-season primary losses to Hillary Clinton in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana revealed a chink in his support among the white working class -- some believing rumors that he is a Muslim or betrays a lack of patriotism.

The primary defeats also may have exposed a vein of racism that could figure in the November contest against Republican John McCain who, like Clinton, is white.

Of the 10 million members of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, one quarter are said to be undecided about Obama. The union is going all-out to bring them into the fold.

"There's not a single good reason for any worker -- especially any union member -- to vote against Barack Obama," labor leader Richard Trumka told a Steel Workers convention in Las Vegas last month.

"There's only one really bad reason to vote against him: because he's not white," he said.

In spite of the protracted decline in union density to the point where labor unions represent only one in eight U.S. workers, high turnout rates among union members and their families gives them disproportionate weight in elections.

Union households are expected to account for as many as one in four votes cast in November -- and one in three votes in key states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan that could determine the outcome in a close presidential contest.

Voters from households with at least one union member overwhelmingly backed Democrats in some U.S. Senate races in 2006, said Robert Bruno, a labor expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In 2004, the unions backed Democrat John Kerry but nearly one-third of their members bucked the endorsement in favor of George W. Bush, who appealed to them on "moral" issues such as the right to gun ownership and opposition to gay rights.

Leaders of the AFL-CIO met this week in Chicago to decide how to deploy some 250,000 volunteers and more than $250 million for its grass-roots campaign on behalf of Obama and 500 Democratic candidates vying for other posts.

The fast-growing Service Employees International Union, which has successfully organized lower-wage workers, has $85 million to spend. The AFL-CIO said it has set aside its rivalry with the SEIU and other unions that left to form their own labor federation in 2005.

CONFRONT RACISM

Unions pride themselves on their racial diversity and plan to confront members about any biases they have.

"You go straight at our people and talk about the difference between McCain and Obama and the fact that race could be an issue -- you go straight at it," said Gerald McEntee, head of the AFL-CIO's political committee.

"Once people get in the booth, if they won't vote for a black man ...," he said with a shrug.

According to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of registered U.S. voters are white.

Union leaders hope for a Democratic sweep that adds to the party's majorities in Congress. They will bank on favorable tax policies, steps toward universal health care, reconsideration of trade agreements and other efforts to slow the outsourcing of their jobs.

The unions have already announced a post-election program aimed at holding the victors accountable.

Especially vital to the union agenda is passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a law that favors union organizing efforts over employers' options to block them. Obama supports the legislation while McCain opposes it.

The proposal has companies like Wal-Mart Stores Inc nervous, and the giant retailer that is a coveted target of union organizers has warned its store managers about the possible consequences, while stressing it was not telling its 1.4 million employees how to vote.

Surveys have shown one-third of eligible U.S. workers would like to join a union. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the proportion of union workers declined by an average of about 4 percent a year though unions have stabilized in recent years, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, a nonpartisan think tank.

Union leaders believe the outcome of the election may be a harbinger for organized labor, which is in decline globally.

"You get somebody like Obama in there ... I think it's a different side of the coin," McEntee said.

(Editing by Anthony Boadle)

(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http://blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)

© 2008 Reuters