Labor Notes: Unions Talk Race as Election Nears

Labor Notes

Unions Talk Race as Election Nears

Labor leaders who want desperately to chase the Republicans from the White House are confronting a hurdle in their outreach to members: the question of race. Obama’s record on economic issues, they say, should put him way ahead of John McCain with working-class voters. But will the facts be enough to overcome some members’ deep-seated prejudice?

“We have people disguise it by saying he doesn’t have enough experience, or they’re not comfortable voting for him,” says Kyle McDermott, field director in the Steelworkers’ political department. “And we have people come at us and say, ‘Look, I’m not going to vote for a black person.’ They don’t use as kind words as I just did.”

At the August meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council, talk was unusually frank about the need to deal with the race question. But what to do?

Jeff Crosby, head of a central labor council near Boston, says, “There’s two approaches—one is just to talk about the class issues, not race. The other is more complicated: let’s talk about race.

“In any legislative campaign we have this issue. It’s the one moment people are actually willing to talk. Do you try to do education in that teachable moment? Or do you just try to get the vote?”

Most unions are trying to get the vote by any means necessary, but some see this election as part of unions’ responsibility to challenge racism, whether it’s in the voting booth or in the shop.

“You’ve got to break down all of those barriers that stop us from respecting the guy we work next to,” said Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO.

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