Landing the White Whale

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The relationship between Barack Obama and the white working class is beginning to resemble that between Ahab and the white whale. In state after state (Ohio, Pennsylvania and now Indiana), Obama sets out to reel in his working-class quarry, and, in state after state, it eludes him. As Obama is still the likely nominee, many Democrats fear that come November, working-class whites will pull Obama and their party down to defeat.

Obama's problem, and the Democrats', goes well beyond the malignant nonsense of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Ever since the New Deal coalition was smashed on the reefs of race in the mid-1960s, working-class white support for Democratic presidential candidates has hemorrhaged. Though he won a plurality of the popular vote, Al Gore lost the white working class by 17 points in 2000; John Kerry lost it by 23 points four years later. Even though, as Ruy Teixeira of the Brookings Institution and Alan Abramowitz of Emory University demonstrated in a recent paper, the white working class is becoming an ever smaller share of the overall electorate, it will remain large enough through the middle of the century that the Democrats cannot afford to lose it by Kerrylike margins. But how, Democrats wonder, can they secure the white working-class vote?

Well, they could start by re-unionizing it.

For the past 40 years -- ever since working-class whites began defecting from Democratic ranks -- the voting behaviors of unionized and non-unionized whites have differed radically. In every election during this period, union members have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate at a rate about a dozen points higher than the general public and about 15 points higher than the non-union sector. In 2004, for instance, Kerry won 61 percent of union members while getting just 45 percent support from nonmembers.

That doesn't mean union membership is the crucial determinant in all parts of the electorate. Single young African American women, for example, are likely to back the Democratic nominee at a rate in excess of 90 percent, whether or not they belong to a union. Where membership matters is among white voters, men in particular. White male union members gave Kerry 57 percent of their vote; white male nonmembers, 38 percent -- a 19-point gap. Fifty-seven percent of white male union members who didn't go to college voted for Kerry, while only 34 percent of white male, non-union non-collegians backed him -- a 23-point gap. Equivalently gaping differentials are present in exit polling clear back through 1972.

What do unions do that has such an impact? Chiefly, they remind their members what's at stake. In this primary season, the unions are split -- some for Obama, some for Hillary Clinton, some sitting it out. But come fall, they'll be telling their members that the election is about shoring up the American economy; that the free-trade, pro-corporate, deregulatory proclivities of John McCain will only weaken the nation more; and that the Democratic candidate's support for universal health care, managed trade, green-collar jobs and more affordable college is what the nation needs.

By every available measure, this messaging works. The problem for Democrats is that American employers have waged a hugely successful campaign against unions for the past 35 years, abetted by a dysfunctional labor law that imposes negligible penalties on employers for violating its terms and their employees' rights. For decades, as union membership declined from 35 percent of the workforce in the mid-1950s to 12 percent today (7.5 percent in the private sector), Democrats stood by and failed to strengthen workers' rights to organize. By the late '90s, John Sweeney's AFL-CIO had impressed upon Democrats that their inaction amounted to slow-motion suicide. Today, the party is united behind the Employee Free Choice Act, which, by enabling workers to join unions again without fear of being fired, would also greatly help Democratic prospects at the polls.

Until such time as the EFCA is enacted, however, what can the Democrats do to avoid, or at least mitigate, the kind of working-class white wipeout that could cost them Ohio or Pennsylvania? Since 2004, the AFL-CIO has conducted a door-to-door membership drive in white working-class neighborhoods of key swing states, signing people up not for workplace representation but for certain union benefits -- and to enlist them in the federation's political program. That program, called Working America, has 2 million members in key industrial Midwest states, among others, and has turned out large majorities in recent elections for such Democratic candidates as Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. While Barack Obama may prove a tough sell to some of these voters come November, Working America will surely be the Democrats' best shot at landing their white whale.

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