The president of the AFL-CIO is worried that President Obama is doing poorly among white, working class, male voters -- and he plans on putting 400,000 of his troops in the field in six key states to change the equation.
Recent polls show the president doing poorly with white males with less than a college education. Mitt Romney leads the president among white males voters by more than 2-to-1 in a recent Washington Post poll, with the president favored by only 28 percent of this demographic group. Other polls show similar results. Republicans have won a majority of white males' votes in most recent elections; but the president has slipped significantly among this cohort from his last race. In 2008, Obama carried 39 percent of white male votes.
Richard Trumka, the former coal miner who now leads the 8.4 million- member AFL-CIO, hopes he can at least convince his own white male members to vote for Obama. But, apparently, he doesn't have a very high opinion of those who choose not to follow his lead. He recently told Reuters that of the 1-in-4 union members who didn't vote for Obama in 2008, "some of this I think was pure racism. Some of them would be gun owners, some of them would be right-wing. Some of them would be ... died-in-the-wool Republicans."
Trumka and the Obama team are counting on stoking class resentment to motivate union members: Portray Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy who wants to ship jobs overseas, and maybe union members will ignore the fact that far more Americans are out of work today than when Obama took office. The unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in January 2009; it's 8.2 percent now, despite massive government spending. Obama's own economic advisers predicted that the nearly trillion-dollar 2009 stimulus package would bring it down to less than 8 percent.
It should be no surprise that Trumka and other union leaders are making an all-out push for Obama. In recent decades, unions have become virtual auxiliaries of the Democratic Party -- devoting resources, money, and manpower to electing Democrats at every level of government. This election cycle will be no different. Last election, the AFL-CIO claimed they put 250,000 union members to work helping elect President Obama. And they spent hundreds of millions of dollars -- much of it union dues -- in the 2008 and 2010 elections.
But if a quarter of all dues-paying members disapprove of their union's choices, shouldn't that have some bearing on how their money is spent? In most organizations, a disgruntled member could merely quit if he or she didn't like the way the organizations used their money. Not so for many union members, for whom paying union dues may be a requirement to get the job in the first place. Even in so-called agency-shops -- where workers may not be required to join the union -- they must still pay "agency fees" to the union for representing them in collective bargaining, whether they like it or not.
A Supreme Court ruling in 1998 gave workers the right to ask for refunds of that portion of their agency fees spent on politics and other matters not directly related to collective bargaining, but it's often difficult -- even risky -- to do so. And those "fees" that remain in union coffers end up helping elect Democrats come election season.
It's not just fees-paying non-union members who object to this system. Even some union members are voting with their feet -- and not to go door-to-door for President Obama. In April, the AFL-CIO released its annual report on membership, which showed a decline of 1.2 percent from 2011. Overall, the AFL-CIO is down by more than a third from its peak more than three decades ago.
In Wisconsin, which passed legislation that requires state employee unions to collect dues from members directly rather than having the dues automatically deducted from government paychecks, membership fell dramatically. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Workers, the second-largest union in Wisconsin, lost more than half of its members last year.
Perhaps Trumka and the AFL-CIO ought to be less worried about delivering their white male members' votes to President Obama and more worried about delivering the services their members actually want. It's not race that is driving the decline in support for both President Obama and unions -- it's pure economics.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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