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Race and the union vote

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato is blunter: “There’s no question that race is at the heart of Obama’s problem with blue-collar white union members. You’d have to be pretty naive to think otherwise.”

Sabato explains that, normally, today’s severe economic dislocation would send union members flocking to the Democrats’ nominee. “Well, they are not flocking. McCain is their kind of guy. His biography and maverick nature are appealing.”

Yet for some labor members race does not factor at all in their voting decisions.

Joe Swistok, 62, of Southington, Ohio, is a lifelong union member who began working at Republic Steel in 1964; his father had worked there since 1936. He switched his party registration to Republican during the Reagan years.

“Reagan impressed me. That guy did a lot for this guy,” Swistok says, referring to himself. “This area is devastated for one reason: You can’t tax businesses and expect them to stay.”

Stricker thinks Obama “must make a strong economic-populist appeal,” one hinging on class warfare, in order to win Pennsylvania and Ohio.

To that end, both George and Rugola are engaged in huge voter-contact efforts -- door-knocking, phone calls, mailings, peer-to-peer efforts.

According to an AFL-CIO spokesman, 2.1 million registered voters live in union households in Ohio, 1.7 million in Pennsylvania. In a close election, every one of these votes matters for Democrats.

“Approximately a quarter of all American households say there is a union member in the home,” Sabato explains. “They are much more Democratic than average, but in GOP landslide years like 1972 and 1984, a majority has voted Republican.”

Sabato says that a third or more union members consistently vote Republican for president, despite their union leaders’ recommendations.

Part of Obama's problem is the contrast he presents: On one day alone last week, he spoke passionately about the country’s economic concerns, then zipped off to Los Angeles to raise $9 million from Hollywood’s elites.

That’s sort of like John Kerry windsurfing during the 2004 election: Union members in Youngstown or in “Little Washington,” Pa., just can’t relate.

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