Salena Zito

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio--You just knew that when Joe O’Connell, former head of the local AFL-CIO, got on stage here with John McCain and Sarah Palin things were not going smoothly for the Obama campaign among union voters.

“I am a lifelong Democrat, an intelligent Democrat, who is supporting John McCain,” O’Connell said last week as a crowd of 7,000 waved “Another Democrat for John McCain” signs and roared its approval.

O’Connell assured the energized crowd that “organized labor will have a seat at the table when John McCain becomes president.”

It’s the kind of statement that Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George does not want to hear.

“It’s a problem,” George admits, “but we are in an all-out effort to educate our members that the Democratic Party is the only one for working families.”

He is not exaggerating when he says “all-out effort” – just try following him for a day and you’re exhausted by the events, focus groups and sit-downs in which he participates.

Democrats count on unions for get-out-the-vote efforts and for the support of members and their families. Without them, states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio -- which each have about 740,000 workers who belong to unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- would move into the Republican column.

George narrows the problem down to race. “There is no question, earlier in the primary campaign the racial issue was there, just like the gender issue was with Hillary for some unions,” he says.

“We in America like to think we don’t have any hang-ups or stereotypes. But because of our history and because of a lot of industrial psychology controlling the masses, people have innate prejudices.”

George says that the mind-set of some people in the labor movement regarding race is no different than it is in church groups, or in the Republican Party.

Joe Rugola is George’s counterpart in Ohio and he, too, is seeing a problem with race and his members. Yet he also sees another dynamic going on -- a respect among union members for McCain.

“There is no question that John McCain historically has had a cultural connection with our members,” Rugola says, “but the reality is that his policies are not good for working families.”

Frank Stricker, a history professor at California State University and a union expert, says race is a key to what alienates segments of the labor movement, especially in Ohio and west of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania.

Stricker says that other than people not voting for a black candidate, a couple of factors -- such as Obama's cultural style and pro-choice stand -- do not sit well with culturally conservative union members.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.