Unions Confront Race at the Doorstep

On a mild late October evening, in an integrated working-class neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, Working America canvass leader Jesse Kloch is knocking on doors, asking the people who come to those doors about their presidential preference, and coming up with arguments to persuade the undecideds to cast their vote for Barack Obama. Jesse has been at this for three years as a staffer for Working America -- an AFL-CIO-sponsored proto-union. (Working America doesn't represent its members at their workplace, but it does enroll them in the AFL-CIO's political program.) Working America has grown to include an astonishing 789,000 Ohioans, or about 10 percent of the state's electorate. Add that to the number of members of traditional unions in Ohio and you get 2.1 million voters -- about one-quarter of the state's electorate.

Which is how Jesse has come to be talking about the election to a poster-grandma, a dear old lady with plump cheeks, a slow gait, a sweet-looking smile, and curly white hair. When Jesse asks her whom she supports, she answers, in an Appalachian drawl, "McCain." Testing to see if there's some flexibility in that answer, Jesse asks her why. "Because he's a white man!" the woman fairly shouts.

"They're usually not that direct," Jesse tells me as we proceed to the next house.

The logic behind Jesse's endeavors is impeccable. In recent elections, roughly two-thirds of union members have voted Democratic in the presidential race. Within the white working class, union members are nearly 25 percent more likely to have voted Democratic than are nonmembers. The unions' -- and the Democrats' -- problem is that the union movement has shriveled to a mere 7 percent of private-sector workers. The idea behind Working America has been to canvass working-class neighborhoods, sign up nonunion members, and subject them to the same AFL-CIO programs that have been so effective among union members. The program works: In 2004 and 2006, Working America members voted for John Kerry and Democratic gubernatorial and senatorial candidates at the same rate as union members.

This year, the program has taken on a whole new urgency, however. "Unions are asking their members, and Working America members, to do something they've never done: to vote for a black candidate," says Steve Rosenthal, the former AFL-CIO political director who is widely credited with revitalizing labor's election efforts during his tenure there in the 1990s. "And it's for the office of president."

In swing states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the electoral task of labor -- both the traditional unions and Working America -- is pivotal. It's to keep Barack Obama from being wiped out on Nov. 4 by the votes of the white working-class -- a group that George W. Bush carried by 23 points over John Kerry in 2004.

It's no surprise, then, that Jesse's nightly walks do not always go smoothly. A few minutes after our encounter with the dear old lady McCain voter, he speaks with a younger woman (a union member -- Jesse's list includes both union and Working America members) who, between talking on her cell phone and telling her dogs to shut up, says she'll never support a candidate who won't put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. But a few doors down, we meet a woman who says she's been a lifelong Republican but that "the current Republican Party scares me." She will vote for Obama, as will her Republican husband, who also comes to the door, volunteers that they're both union members and that it's important to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. ("That's something people don't usually bring up by themselves," an understated Jesse says as we walk away.)

Jesse's activities are just one part of a vast, multifaceted union program this year. The program isn't merely critical to Barack Obama's prospects next week. It's also probably the single greatest test in American history of labor's ability to get its members to vote more on the basis of class than on the basis of race.

Can Labor Move Past Race?

Until the past two weeks, it wasn't evident that labor was up to that challenge. At the beginning of October, the AFL-CIO's weekly polling of its Ohio members was showing a slim Obama lead over McCain of 53 percent to 41 percent. But Obama's numbers have increased steadily during October while McCain's have declined, so that today, Obama is getting 62 percent support from Ohio AFL-CIO members (including both traditional unions and Working America) and McCain just 31 percent. In September, Obama was trailing John Kerry's numbers at that time four years previous. Now, he's slightly surpassed them.

In a sense, overcoming the nation's racial rifts has always been the distinctive challenge facing American labor. Unlike its European counterparts, its own working class has always been multiracial -- a fact that explains a great deal about the failure of the United States to ever have a powerful socialist movement or a more solidaristic consciousness.

At their best, unions have been an indispensable force in combating American racism -- but even the best unions have not always been able to enlist their white members in that cause. Under the leadership of Walter Reuther, the United Auto Workers (UAW) funded and provided most of the resources (e.g., buses) for the 1963 March on Washington. For decades, it had championed the rights of black autoworkers, and African Americans generally, in Detroit and other industrial cities. Such policies did not win universal approval within the union, however, which was chiefly made up of Appalachian whites and Southern blacks, who both had traveled north for the work. During World War II, the union worked constantly to keep its members in the newly integrated defense factories from attacking each other. From the 1930s through the 1960s, the UAW did persuade its white members in and around Detroit to vote for progressive Democratic candidates for federal and state office. It failed continually, however, to persuade them to vote for liberals at the level of Detroit city government. From their city council, their white members wanted housing laws that would keep their black union brothers out of their neighborhoods, and a police force that would keep them more generally in their place.

This spring, as it became clear that Obama would be the presidential nominee, union leaders clearly understood the challenge before them. At a closed-door session at the AFL-CIO's executive council meeting in August, more than 300 union leaders from battleground states came together to share their assessments of their members' sentiments and figure how best to persuade racist white members to vote for a black presidential candidate. Part of the problem was that due to the principle of seniority, factory closings disproportionately cost unions their younger members, and older members tend to harbor more racial biases than do younger ones. (One Ohio AFL-CIO official estimates that the average member in his state is close to 50.) The AFL-CIO's polling of its Ohio members wasn't encouraging, and the polls of the union retirees were downright appalling. Perhaps the most upsetting, if not surprising, fact to emerge at the meeting was that in a number of unions, local leaders were afraid that if they pushed their members to vote for Obama, "they might not remain the leader of their local past the next local election," as one union official at the meeting later put it.

By the time of the August meeting, however, the substance of the union message to wavering white voters was clear. It had been laid out over the summer in a series of powerful speeches by Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO's secretary treasurer. Speaking to the Steelworkers in early July, Trumka told how a Democratic activist in the Pennsylvania mining town where he had grown up had told him she couldn't vote for Obama because he was Muslim. "A lot … of good union people," Trumka said, "can't get past this idea that there's something wrong with voting for a black man."

"I don't think we should be out there pointing fingers in people's faces and calling them racist," Trumka continued. "Instead, we need to educate them that if they care about holding on to their jobs, their health care, their pensions, and their homes, if they care about creating good jobs with clean energy, child care, pay equity for women workers, there's only going to be one candidate on the ballot this fall who's on their side."

Trumka's speeches laid out the arguments that labor has been making since. (On YouTube, they became an Internet sensation, bolstering Trumka's prospects to succeed John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president.) On several occasions in Ohio, I heard stories of local leaders pushing back at union meetings where some members objected to voting for a black man. In one such meeting, a local president was speaking to roughly 350 of his members on Obama's behalf and encountering considerable resistance. "I don't care if you don't like the color of his skin," the president said, according to Ben Waxman, political director of the Ohio AFL-CIO, who attended the meeting. "It's not about that. It's about us, about our future. Shame on us if we put race before our family."

Taking the Discussion Local

Sometimes, local meetings have provided the occasion for public displays and discussions of racism. Glen Skeen, who coordinates the AFL-CIO's program in the greater Columbus area, recounts one meeting of a Sheet Metal Workers local that he spoke at. During the meeting, one white member said he wouldn't vote for a candidate who took his oath of office on the Koran and wouldn't pledge allegiance to the flag. At that point, a black member (there were half-a-dozen blacks out of a total of 45 in attendance) objected not just to that characterization of Obama but to whites' stereotyping of blacks. "You've got to see us as individuals," he insisted. The white member -- he was in the union's apprenticeship program -- acknowledged that he'd not really had contact with African Americans before, at which point Skeen said, "Make some contact now -- that's what unions are about." After the meeting ended, Skeen says, some younger black and white members engaged in an extensive discussion. Older white members, however, had no such discussion. "They weren't willing to engage," Skeen says. "The younger folks -- they're not that angry yet."

And that anger, within an aging white union membership, plainly limited the ability of much of Ohio labor to mount a full-scale program for the Democratic nominee this year. To be sure, labor's program was necessarily late coming together due to the protracted primary season and the fact that many of Ohio's leading unions had backed Hillary Clinton. At the level of union leadership, however, allegiance was transferred to Obama fairly quickly. "Around the time we knew that Hillary wouldn't be the nominee," says Joe Rugola, an AFSCME leader who also became president of the Ohio AFL-CIO in August 2007, "many of us reached the conclusion that we couldn't go wrong with either [Obama or Clinton]. And we have this desperate desire for change."

But moving the rank-and-file proved more arduous. Waxman arrived to head the AFL-CIO's political program around the time Rugola assumed the presidency. Waxman "said he hoped for a massive program that would put 2004 to shame," Rugola recalls. "I said it wouldn't be the same. First, Change To Win had split off. Second, I thought our people would come around later than usual. So you don't see the huge numbers that you saw in '04. We had 1,700 people precinct walking on the night of Bush's acceptance speech in 2004. This year, we had 20 percent of that."

Indeed, in a year that has been marked by a tsunami of volunteer activism -- by one count, a mind-boggling 5 million Americans have volunteered for the Obama campaign nationally -- the turnout by Ohio union members for labor's campaign has been notably smaller than in past elections, at least in certain parts of the state. "This year, it's been very difficult to get volunteers out," says Skeen, the Columbus-area coordinator, "partly because of Barack at the top of the ticket. We've had big get-out-the-vote programs for the past four years, but this year, people are just burnt out. Phone bank workers and precinct walkers hear a lot of racist remarks. Some local leaders say they don't want to be involved because it may affect their own re-election. Leaders of the [building] trades have had a hard time getting out front of their members."

The reluctance of some local leaders to lead is particularly damaging because labor knows from both research and experience that the most effective way they have of communicating to their members is one-on-one worksite discussions between members and their local leaders and stewards. In battleground states, the national AFL-CIO has a program that entails two such discussions monthly with undecided members during August, September, and October. Part of Skeen's job entails monitoring the progress of such discussions in Columbus-area locals. "In our largest 75 locals, we're getting some buy-in," he says, but getting reports back from the locals hasn't been easy.

Skeen laments that "we don't have a chance to establish a sense of community" among Columbus' union members and activists. Some individual unions in Ohio -- the Steelworkers, the Painters and the Communications Workers -- plainly do have first-rate political programs that activate a good number of members. Nationally, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is generally conceded to have the most effective political program of any international union, but within Ohio, it has a fairly small membership. It has been able to fund a massive ground operation this year, however, and within Ohio, roughly 175 full-time paid organizers are working in two teams, one turning out the SEIU vote, the other registering and mobilizing primarily African American voters in Cleveland and other major cities. As of Oct. 24, says SEIU 1199 president Becky Williams, the organizers had knocked on 352,000 doors and made 550,000 phone calls. But many if not most of SEIU's Ohio organizers come from locals in New York and Massachusetts, where Obama's victory is already assured.

Too Little, Too Late?

But the Ohio component of many unions' Ohio ground game plainly has left something to be desired. Both Rugola and Waxman are considered major improvements over their predecessors, but turning around the political habits of the many hundreds of AFL-CIO-affiliated locals in the state is a massive challenge, and the new AFL-CIO leaders have only been on the job for a little more than a year. "The AFL-CIO has had real trouble getting its people to turn out," says one veteran Ohio liberal operative. "It's not clear that the stewards have been talking to their members. Their model is flawed: You need to do political organizing all year round to be able to call on volunteers, but they don't keep their volunteers after they do one-shot outreach to them."

And yet, the polling numbers have moved. If both the AFL-CIO's internal Ohio polls and the public polls of general voter sentiment in Ohio are correct, Obama's October surge into the lead in the Buckeye State can be attributed chiefly to white union (and Working America) members moving into Obama's column. "I don't know if its increased exposure to Obama, watching him at the debates, but something clicked," says SEIU's Williams.

Certainly, the unions' messaging and micro-targeting has played a major role.: Based on their phone calls, precinct walks, and lists that contain all manner of data on voters, the national AFL-CIO has been able to generate mail -- far more than it did in 2004 -- on such topics as veterans' issues, gun-owner rights, school funding, and the like for voters specifically concerned with those topics. It also has produced more general debunking mailings, some dispelling many of the myths that the right has propagated about Obama, others emphasizing the economic contrasts between Obama and McCain. During October, the volume of mail, house visits, and shop steward contacts has increased, even if the people in charge of some of these programs, such as Skeen, remain frustrated at some unions' level of activity.

But disaggregating the causes for Obama's gains among Ohio's white union members is no easy task. The unions' endeavors have clearly played a major role but so has the steadily increasing roar of the economic collapse -- the one issue unions have been best able to exploit. "Ultimately, our message is to pound on the economy," says Waxman.

In the campaign's final two weeks, Waxman's boss, Ohio AFL-CIO chief Rugola, is walking 325 miles through swing sections of the state, from one closed factory to the next, publicizing the 1,100 factories that have closed in Ohio during the past eight years, and the 180,000 manufacturing jobs that have been lost in the process. As our interview concluded, Rugola left AFL-CIO headquarters in Columbus for southeastern Ohio, along the Ohio River -- the state's most Appalachian quadrant, one of its whitest, and one of its poorest.

Rugola understands the conflicts that many voters in that part of the state are going through as they consider their vote for president. "There's an instinctual understanding that we're about to redefine ourselves as a country, and that makes people nervous," he says. "Some people are just plain miserable that our new face to the world may be different than any that we've shown before."

"I always thought our people would come around later than usual," Rugola says. "A few weeks ago, I noticed the polling of our members started to shift. I gave three speeches in southeast Ohio in late September, and the reactions from members indicated they were starting to come to grips with the need to get the economy right. In their gut, they know they'll be facing the toughest economic times they've ever seen."

"They're starting to come home," Rugola says, predicting that Obama will carry Ohio. "They're coming home late, but they're coming home."

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