Union teams address Obama's race as an issue


As organized labor pours money and manpower into big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, union leaders decided months ago they had to confront the issues of race and culture head-on.

How? By talking about a color that's neither black nor white.

"Color does matter in this election. And you know what color matters? Green," United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard said at a recent campaign stop in Martins Ferry, Ohio. "Because working people have had their futures robbed, and it's time to get back on track with Barack Obama as president."

Obama's support among blue-collar whites took off at precisely the time the U.S. economy began its stomach-churning descent, contributing to his comfortable lead in surveys in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. The message that's being heard over and over by the rank-and-file: A vote for Republican nominee John McCain is a vote against your economic interests.

Bill George, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, believes only a tiny fraction of white union members will cast their ballots based on race. Obama will get just as many votes from organized labor as John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000, maybe more, he predicts.

"I don't even worry about the racial issue anymore," he said.

But even the most optimistic of union leaders concede that for some members, race still matters. The canvassers in the brown van, for instance, on leave from their full-time jobs as nursing assistants, endured a few slammed doors last week _ and, on occasion during this long election season, some racially charged remarks about Obama.

Some have told canvasser Sandra Williams they are not voting for Obama because he is black. When others have cited Obama's inflammatory former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or his relationship with Weather Underground founder William Ayers as reasons to oppose him, Williams, who is black, doesn't buy it. She believes these union members are veiling their prejudice.

"What are you going to do?" she says. "We're told we're not allowed to argue."

Ken Settle, 59, a white letter carrier canvassing for the AFL-CIO in another part of Cambria County last week, says he was ridiculed at one union household: "If Obama wins, you whities will be sorry. You'll see."

Williams, 54, made a recent day's rounds with Missy Robine, 37, a fellow nurse's aide, and Nathan Williams (no relation), 37, the business agent for union workers at a dozen nursing homes.

Their task is tedious but relatively simple: Poll each of the 80 names on their list, distribute literature, and talk to undecided voters who feel like talking.

The minivan pulls over at the home of Sam Amenti, 28, a union electrician with a newborn daughter.

Meeting Williams and Williams on the front porch, Amenti says that he's having trouble choosing between Obama and McCain. He views Obama's inexperience as both a strength and a weakness.

"If we don't start putting the right people in the right positions, your little one is going to suffer, your little baby," Sandy Williams advises him.

The conversation turns abruptly to race. Amenti says some whites do not trust Obama: "I think he's going to have to work hard to get the respect of the rest of the country because he's a black man."

He also says he's disgusted by some of the racial prejudice that lingers in Cambria County.

Whiter, poorer, older and less educated on average than the rest of the nation, it's part of the region that Democratic Rep. John Murtha was referring to when he told a Pittsburgh newspaper recently: "There is no question that western Pennsylvania is a racist area."

His comments provoked something of a firestorm, and Murtha apologized the following day. But he later repeated the idea.

As they knocked on doors last week, Williams and other teams of AFL-CIO canvassers in Cambria County heard no overtly racist statements. The racial attitudes on display were more complicated, subtle _ and didn't generally translate into lost votes for Obama.

At one house, the woman who answers the door laughs derisively, declares, "I'm not even talking to you," and shuts it.

At another house, Phil Barr, 51, an auto mechanic, tells Williams he's an Obama man. Not so the guy down the street, who occasionally lets fly with a racial epithet, Barr says. "He's like that and he doesn't care who knows it."

The canvassers pull up to a union house with a yard sign that proclaims, "Another Democrat for McCain." They make a notation and keep driving. It's mid-afternoon and no one is home. Hours later, as night falls, a reporter returns and meets the homeowner, a 60-year-old former coal miner who speaks passionately for nearly an hour about what he sees as Obama's shortcomings _ from energy and taxes to abortion and guns.

He also weighs in on Obama's "strong Muslim background" (Obama is actually Christian) and suspects the Democrat wants to pour money into "inner cities" and give it to "certain classes of people. You can read between the lines on that." He says he doesn't want his name published: "I don't want there to be repercussions."

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka began this latest conversation on race in July when he told a United Steelworkers convention that racial bigotry was preventing some union members from supporting Obama. He noted that a lot of union members "just can't get past the idea that there's something wrong with voting for a black man."

Then he added: "There's not a single good reason for any worker, especially any union member, to vote against Barack Obama. And there's only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama, and that's because he's not white."

A Steelworkers poll of members found the number supporting Obama trailed the 70 percent who backed Kerry in 2004, said Steelworkers' International Secretary-Treasurer Jim English.

He added the union decided to confront the racial issue head on, and its message has been simple: "Don't let the fact that he's black cause you to vote against your economic interests," English said.

Of course, union members oppose Obama for all sorts of reasons other than race _ they may disagree with his stance on abortion rights, for instance, or worry he'll take away their guns or think he's just too liberal.

In any event, the AFL-CIO spokesman Steve Smith says race-based resistance to Obama has faded since Trumka's speech. But the labor movement is leaving nothing to chance.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 federal workers, has been running radio ads urging voters to "get beyond" biases. And the Steelworkers' union developed a training DVD to teach canvassers how to talk about race.

One of the union's flyers says: "Don't let fear steal your vote. Focus on the issues."


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