Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Obama's Speech on Race
Not long after Sen. Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president, union bosses for the building trades realized they needed to better understand their members’ complicated views of the Illinois senator.
They commissioned a study by Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman and Penn State professor Jerry Olson, who have developed a method to understand consumers’ subconscious decision-making.
Researchers asked 15 Pittsburgh-area workers in the building trades, all white men over 35 who were leaning toward Republican Sen. John McCain or undecided, to sit down for one-on-one interviews lasting several hours.
They shared a sense that everything they had assimilated in their cultural upbringings was changing before them, said Tom Owens, spokesman for the National Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.
For the most part, the responses were not overtly racist, Owens said. But they revealed anxiety that union leaders worry could become an election wild card.
“They’re nervous and scared and uneasy,” Owens said. “They live in a multiethnic society and see the culture their father and grandfathers had, the tightknit culture, all of it slipping away. Hip-hop music is everywhere and they don’t understand it. It fills them with a kind of trepidation. They understand Obama is with them on the issues. He stands up and protects unions. But then there’s that little element a lot of them had in the back of their minds: Is Barack Obama going to be the president for black America and not white America?”
The results were troubling to Building Trades President Mark Ayers and other labor leaders who have backed Obama over McCain and hoped their members follow. While Obama’s campaign has been mostly reticent to call attention to the racial dynamics of the race for fear of polarizing voters, union leaders are confronting the topic by talking directly to members.
To win, Obama needs them.
Nationally, 15.4 million workers belong to unions, and 73 percent of them are white. The AFL-CIO Building Trades represents a workforce of 2.5 million, including about 20,000 in Las Vegas. Another 10,000 members in Southern Nevada belong to the Carpenters Union, part of a rival labor federation.
Concluding that Obama’s skin color could be a factor for a fraction of those members, union heads have rushed to send out videos, print materials and talking points to send the message that despite misgivings, Obama is the far better choice for those concerned about their jobs, health care and retirement savings. The AFL-CIO is spending $53.4 million on its grass-roots mobilization to persuade members to come out for Obama.
Some of those messages are very direct when it comes to race.
One video, distributed by the Building Trades to union locals nationwide, features a white painter from Chicago who knows Obama. Using a metaphor, he tells viewers that a patient struggling with a heart ailment isn’t going to care about the color of his doctor’s skin. He just wants the best doctor. Right now, the worker says, Washington needs a heart transplant.
“We have to take it head-on and get it on the table,” Ayers said last week in an interview.
“Some of our members, if you ask them the problem with Obama, they’ll say he doesn’t wear an American flag pin (on his) lapel. And the answer is that’s not true,” Ayers said. “When you get right down to it they’ll tell you quietly that some of them don’t support Obama because he’s black.”
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka made similar comments in July at a United Steelworkers convention in Las Vegas.
Trumka recalled how race had been used in the past by companies to divide workers. “A lot of good union people just can’t get past the idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a black man. Well, those of us who know better can’t afford to look the other way,” Trumka said. “(There’s) no evil that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism — and it’s something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge.”
He noted that industrial unions have stood up against lynching and racism, and that outside the military the labor movement is “the most integrated institution in American life.”
Still, Trumka acknowledged labor isn’t without its failings.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said racial exclusion in the building and construction trades used to be customary. The discrimination, he said, stemmed largely from the way in which those crafts organized, limiting the pool of skilled workers and thus creating a demand for the union labor force.
“This has been a long tradition and it has been a huge fight,” Lichtenstein said. “It’s not like they’re ipso facto racist. But when an underground principle of your organization is to exclude as many people as possible, it reinforces the in-group, out-group sense.”
He added: “The only thing building tradesmen could give their offspring — besides the house when they die — was membership in the union. There was a very strong sense of ownership that goes back 100 years. That coincides with racism and reinforces it.”
Some building trades unions have worked hard to reverse that trend, Lichtenstein said. Several unions, for example, have targeted the largely Hispanic residential construction industry in Las Vegas and other parts of the Southwest.
Polls indicate Obama’s support is slipping among working-class white voters. In June, McCain led the group by 6 percentage points. He now leads working-class whites by 20 percentage points, according to a Pew Center poll conducted last month.
The role of racism in the election is still a question. According to a July New York Times/CBS poll, 5 percent of whites said they would be unwilling to vote for a black candidate. In a separate question, 19 percent said most of the people they knew would not vote for a black.
In Macomb County, a suburb of Detroit and a microcosm of working-class white America, a recent poll found that only 47 percent of white union members support Obama. Not unlike the Pittsburgh building workers in the AFL-CIO study, one-third of Macomb voters said they were concerned Obama would put the interests of blacks ahead of other Americans’. But even more, the voters said Obama was not connecting with them on the economy and they were concerned he did not have enough national security experience.
On the other hand, no Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson has captured a majority of white support.
For Obama, who has staked his candidacy on transcending racial barriers, discussing race has risks.
In July, speaking to a crowd in rural Missouri, Obama said Republicans would try to scare voters by pointing out that he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.”
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis seized on the comments, saying Obama “played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.”
Obama’s campaign gave a muted response — and moved on.
Labor leaders in Las Vegas say they haven’t seen signs of racism at play in the election.
“We think we’re a little different in Southern Nevada,” said Steve Redlinger, a Las Vegas political consultant and spokesman for the Southern Nevada Building Trades Council. Redlinger said building trades unions in Las Vegas have more Hispanics than similar unions in many other parts of the country. Recent analysis shows most Hispanics are inclined to vote for Obama.
Danny Thompson, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO, said the federation’s issues-based campaign is resonating with members. “We’re talking to them specifically about the things they care about: their paycheck, their job. We’re getting very positive feedback.”
But street-level organizers say they’re seeing some subtle signs of anxiety.
“We find that the more our members know about Barack and are educated on McCain’s record, the more at ease they are with Obama as the candidate,” said Mike Reineke, who’s directing the state AFL-CIO’s field effort. “We’re not going to change people’s racial attitudes this election. If you took faces and names away and just did voting on records, it would be an obvious choice.”
Reineke tells organizers to make a simple pitch: “Are you better off today than four years ago?”