Page last updated at 13:37 GMT, Thursday, 18 September 2008 14:37 UK

Can Obama keep Hershey sweet?

By Max Deveson
BBC News, Hershey, Pennsylvania

"I'm a devout Democrat - I just can't in good conscience vote for that man."

Hershey chocolate factory, Hershey, Pennsylvania
The Hershey Company announced plans for job cuts last year

Jake Long's evening on the campaign trail for Barack Obama in Hershey, Pennsylvania, was not getting off to a very encouraging start.

But Mr Long, 61, Political Director of the Chocolate Workers Local 464 union, is a veteran campaigner, and he was happy to argue the case for the Democratic presidential hopeful with Liz Bracale, the first house call on that day's list.

"Is it the Muslim angle?" he asked, before launching into a lengthy rebuttal of many of the internet smears and rumours on which he feared Mrs Bracale may have been basing her low opinion of Mr Obama.

And he listed the policy positions held by Mr Obama that he thought would be most attractive to her.

"He's not going to sign any more free trade deals - he's going to change the tax system to end the incentives that encourage firms to send jobs to other countries," he said.

Cheaper labour

Free trade - and the job losses that the unions say come with free trade pacts - are big news in Hershey.

The Hershey company - the town's biggest employer and America's biggest confectionery manufacturer - last year announced plans to shed 1500 jobs in the US, 900 of them in Hershey itself.

The firm also announced its intention to move some of its operations to Mexico, where labour is cheaper.

The unions say that the job losses are a direct result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) between the US, Mexico and Canada, and that more deals - like the proposed free trade agreement with Colombia - will mean more job losses.

Mr Obama has pledged to renegotiate America's trade deals to include greater protection for workers and the environment, partly in order to level the playing field and reduce the flow of American jobs abroad.

The way the Republicans are going, America's going to be a Third World country before too long
Nancy Gasparovich
Hershey resident

But Mrs Bracale had little faith in Mr Obama's ability to live up to his rhetoric.

"Opposing [free trade deals] is one thing. But he can't stop Nafta - it's already done. I just don't trust him."

Mr Long does have faith in Mr Obama, however.

"I think he's this country's best hope for change in a long time. Depending on the make-up of Congress, if Obama gets in, he could really make a difference to this country, in terms of healthcare, union rights - and ending the war in Iraq."

There are thousands of men and women like Jake Long campaigning for Barack Obama up and down the country.

The AFL-CIO - the umbrella organisation representing unions like Mr Long's chocolate workers - has budgeted $53m to "educate, mobilize and turn out voters" in this election cycle, and it estimates that some 200,000 volunteers will be helping the campaign.

David Sirota, author and columnist, says unions make a critical contribution to the Obama campaign because they communicate with people "in a face-to-face way in their workplace".

"That's something no online outreach can replicate, and that's why unions remain so critical in elections and in social movements," he says.

Campaign rhetoric?

In Hershey, Mr Long was getting a fair amount of support for his union's proposals - but there was also a degree of political apathy.

Some of the people he spoke to - most of them union members themselves - were even leaning towards John McCain.

Not the Gasparovich family, though.

Jake Long
Mr Long will be campaigning regularly between now and election day

Having been Hillary Clinton supporters in the Democratic primaries, Nancy and her husband Joseph were both now firmly backing Mr Obama.

Their son - a former college football star with the Pittsburgh Panthers - was also a keen Obama supporter.

"The way the Republicans are going, America's going to be a Third World country before too long," Mrs Gasparovich told a nodding Mr Long.

She seemed satisfied that Mr Obama - if he wins the White House - would follow up on his campaign rhetoric about the economy.

But some observers have speculated that the Illinois senator might have slightly overemphasised his opposition to free trade deals during the primaries, when he was trying to win over voters in industrial states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Indeed, Mr Obama himself has said - referring to his comments on trade - that "sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified... Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don't exempt myself".

This has angered some anti-free trade campaigners, like Mr Sirota.

"His campaign is infested with Wall Street insiders, and he has, at times, taken tepid positions on working-class issues like trade, wages and jobs," he says.

"Obama needs to continue ratcheting up the economic populism to bring [union members] fully over to his side."

Mr Long acknowledged that Mr Obama had the potential to backtrack on his free trade pledges - he pointed out that Mr Obama had, after all, voted for a trade deal with Peru.

But he added that once elected, the Democratic contender would face tremendous opposition from his allies in the labour movement if he ever threatened to flip-flop.

AFL-CIO head John Sweeney repeated the warning, in a recent BBC interview.

He would be "watching carefully", he said, to ensure Mr Obama continued his "firm support for the union's fair trade agenda".

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