US: Democrats hope economy trumps workers’ doubts on race

By Andrea Hopkins

(Reuters) – Union leaders know that ringing speeches at this week’s Democratic Party convention will not in themselves win over white working-class Americans reluctant to elect Barack Obama the first black president of the United States.

That’s going to take one-on-one persuasion and a closer focus on pocketbook issues that the party hopes will trump racial concerns and win backing from critical blue-collar swing voters before the November 4 election, they said.

Obama’s troubles with white working class voters have been overshadowed at the convention by the party’s struggle to bring into the fold disgruntled supporters of his defeated rival Democratic Hillary Clinton.

But union leaders talk more about the need to overcome racial prejudice to rally working class voters behind the 47-year-old Illinois senator in the close race with Republican John McCain, 71.

“Many folks around the country have never voted for an African-American, not for president,” Karen Ackerman, the political director of the AFL-CIO trade union umbrella group, told reporters on the convention sidelines.

“But we are confident Barack Obama will be elected when working class voters know who he is and what he stands for.” The AFL-CIO, like most other labor groups which traditionally back Democrats, has endorsed Obama.

A survey released this week showed that while black and Latino workers support Obama by wide margins, white working Americans are almost evenly split, with 43 percent supporting Obama and 44 percent McCain.

But the poll, by Lake Research for the Change To Win union group, also indicated a way to bridge the racial divide: 40 percent of working Americans said the economy was their top concern this election year.


“We need to accept the fact that there are going to be some angry white guys who won’t vote for Barack Obama because he’s a black man,” said Mike Fikes, 56, a construction union leader and convention delegate from Michigan.

But the rest are up for grabs. Blue-collar voters have long eschewed political loyalty in the United States, gravitating to Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, Democrat Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

“The fundamental challenge for us is not the whole issue of what color his skin is … it’s that our economy has gone into the toilet,” Fikes said.

Robert Thompson, 54, director of a local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Akron, Ohio, and a delegate in Denver, said he hears first-hand the “undertone” of racism when colleagues discuss the election.

“The reality is we have the first African American candidate running for president and you can’t minimize that dynamic,” said Thompson, who is black.

“It’s going to be difficult to overcome,” he said. “We have to keep it simple. We have to tell a worker the difference between Barack and McCain is that McCain is trying to do away with employer-provided health care.”

The AFL-CIO plans to spend $53 million to convince three million undecided union voters in key states, like the heavily populated Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, to support Obama.


The AFL-CIO’s Ackerman says local union leaders know best which issues matter most to which workers.

Appealing to the economic self-interest of the working class should be easy in a year when the U.S. economy is faltering, jobs are being lost, the housing market is in crisis and food and gas prices are soaring.

Lawrence Mishel, an economist with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said he expected the economy to worsen before November, playing into the hands of Democrats as voters would likely blame the Republican administration.

“McCain has not distanced himself from Bush’s economic policies at all,” Mishel said. “I don’t think white working class voters have been made aware of that yet … and as economics comes to the fore, you can expect that Obama will capture a lot of the undecideds.”

Obama has promised affordable health care for all who want it, tax cuts for the middle class and a renegotiation of trade agreements that fail to protect American jobs.

McCain rejects such measures, argues for increased domestic energy production to lower consumer costs, and has pledged to extend Bush’s tax cuts, which are geared toward higher wage earners.

(Editing by David Storey)

0 Responses to “US: Democrats hope economy trumps workers’ doubts on race”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 79 other followers

RSS ILO news

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.


Catalogue of publications on International Labour Standards

ILS Catalogue

%d bloggers like this: