Page last updated at 22:45 GMT, Thursday, 23 October 2008 23:45 UK

The unions' battle for Obama

By Stephen Sackur
Presenter, HARDtalk, BBC World News

Construction worker in Portland, Oregon
In September the US economy shed jobs for the ninth month in a row

Not long ago, Barack Obama seemed to have a problem connecting with voters in America's industrial heartland. But a key union leader battling to bring out the Democratic vote told me the tide was turning.

Blue or white? In America the colour of your workplace collar comes with a whole lot of baggage.

"Blue collar" conjures up images of production lines and manual labour. A physically tough, heartland America.

No airs and graces, no college education.

Barack Obama has not, it is fair to say, always had a natural rapport with this group of blue collar Americans.

His is an inspiring personal story, but not one which has put much dirt under his fingernails.

Union support

Consider the facts: a complex mixed race background; schooled in Hawaii and polished in an Ivy League university, a community activist, a lawyer, now a senator.

Richard Trumka talks about worker racism

A man who sets white collar liberal pulses racing, the pin-up politician of the college crowd, but a campaigner who was accused by Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries of looking down on working people and their traditional values.

But that was then. Now Democrats have a presidential election within their grasp.

Which is why when I recently visited the headquarters of America's trade union confederation, the AFL-CIO, I found a gaggle of staff putting the finishing touches to a montage of Obama posters and stickers in the cavernous foyer.

America's unions - one traditional bastion of blue collar America - are pumped up and ready to roll for Barack Obama.

Individually and collectively they have already spent $100 million on advertising and campaigning.

By the time the polls close on 4 November, that figure will have doubled; vast resources are going into a nationwide effort to get working class folk to vote, and vote Democrat.

Energetic campaigner

And the most energetic and passionate Obama campaigner among the union bosses?

Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, a stocky ex-miner from southern Pennsylvania with a pugnacious moustache and a combative message.

Mr Trumka campaigned for Mr Obama in the Pennsylvania primary.

Back then the Illinois senator was soundly thrashed by Hillary Clinton, who won a massive majority of Pennsylvania's white working class votes.

John McCain... has represented... big corporations all his career... Barack Obama... came out of law school and immediately started representing unemployed steel workers
Richard Trumka

And that prompted Richard Trumka to come to a simple, but controversial conclusion, which he first aired to the Steelworkers Union in a speech in July.

"There's not a single good reason for any worker, especially a union worker, to vote against Barack Obama," he said.

"There's only a bad reason: because he's not white."

Those words caused a national stir. Mr Trumka's speech has since attracted almost half a million hits on YouTube.

Talking to the BBC, Mr Trumka stuck to his position.

I put to him that he was saying to workers across this country: "If you don't vote for Barack Obama, you're a racist."

He replied: "No, I'm saying if you vote against him because of the colour of his skin, you're a racist."

When pressed as to whether he was saying the only reason that can exist for not voting for Barack Obama was because you can't take the colour of his skin, Mr Trumka was quite clear: "I believe that in this election."

But when asked if people who vote for John McCain were racists, he replied: "I'm not going to say that."

Economic factor

According to Mr Trumka, internal union surveys show that undecided union voters have been overwhelmingly heading into the Obama camp in recent weeks.

The financial crisis and the alarming signs of a slump in the real economy have focused voter attention on pocket-book issues.

Worries about job security, wages, the cost of living, seem to be helping the Democratic cause.

John McCain addresses a crowd at a motorcycle rally in Arizona
McCain may still have the edge among non-college white working men

As Mr Trumka puts it: "Our wages have stagnated, fewer and fewer of us have health care. We now have 47 million Americans with no health care. Our pensions are being taken away from us.

"We have a real stark choice in this election: John McCain, who has represented the rich, the wealthy and big corporations all his career, or Barack Obama, who came out of law school and immediately started representing unemployed steel workers.

"That's why we're passionate about him."

The unions know that an Obama victory will deliver specific rewards.

He has pledged his support for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would remove the requirement for a secret ballot before workers establish union representation in their workplace.

And Mr Obama seems to share some of the union scepticism about the benefits of extending free trade deals.

Nonetheless it is just possible the unions are over-estimating their ability to deliver the working class vote.

Only one in eight US workers is now a paid-up union member, and one in four households has a union member.

Swing states

A Wall Street Journal opinion poll last month suggested that John McCain still enjoyed more support than Barack Obama among non-college educated white working men.

Richard Trumka might ascribe that to racism, but a series of academic surveys suggests the picture is more complex.

On a range of social issues from gun ownership to abortion, the white working class is instinctively more "conservative" than "liberal".

The battle for the votes of blue collar Americans will continue until the polls open.

It will be a decisive factor in vital swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

A couple of months ago it looked like Barack Obama's lack of affinity with poorer white workers in America's heartland could be his Achilles heel.

Now it looks like economic misery has drawn many of them to his side.

But we will not really know until the votes are counted in the nation's most important secret ballot.

HARDtalk is broadcast on BBC World News TV channel at 0330, 0830, 1430, 2030 and 2230 GMT. Stephen Sackur's interview with Richard Trumka will be broadcast on Saturday 25 October 2008 at 0330 and 2230 GMT.

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