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Sackur's world

By Stephen Sackur
BBC Hardtalk

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 blue collar America.

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

Stephen Sackur talks to Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO
Stephen Sackur talks to Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO

Consider the facts: a complex mixed race background; schooled in Hawaii and polished in the Ivy League; a community activist, a lawyer, now a Senator. A man who sets white collar liberal pulses racing, the pin-up politician of the college crowd, but a campaigner who was accused by Hilary 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've already spent $100 million on advertising and campaigning. By the time the polls close on November 4th that figure will have doubled; vast resources are going into a nationwide effort to get working class folk to vote, and vote Democrat.

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

And the most energetic and passionate Obama campaigner amongst the union bosses? Richard Trumka, Secretary Treasury of the AFL-CIO. A stocky ex-miner from southern Pennsylvania, with a pugnacious moustache and a combative message. Trumka campaigned for 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. And that prompted 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. Trumka's speech has since attracted almost half a million hits on YouTube. It prompted me to ask him some searching questions in a recent HARDtalk interview. It made for a fascinating exchange:

Me: You're saying to workers across this country 'if you don't vote for Barack Obama you're a racist'.

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

There's not a single good reason for any worker, especially a union worker, to vote against Barack Obama
Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO

Me: But you're saying the only reason that can exist for not voting for Barack Obama is because you can't take the colour of his skin.

Trumka: I believe that in this election.

Me: So people who vote for John McCain - working people - are racists, are they?

Trumka: I'm not going to say that.

According to 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 focussed voter attention on pocket-book issues: job security, wages, the cost of living, and that seems to be helping the Democratic cause.

As 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.'

Stephen Sackur in front of the White House
Stephen Sackur in front of the White House

The unions know that an Obama victory will deliver specific rewards. He's 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 Obama seems to share union scepticism about the benefits of extending free trade deals.

Nonetheless it's 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. A Wall Street Journal survey last month suggested that John McCain still enjoyed more support than Barack Obama amongst 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 til the polls open. It will be a decisive factor in vital swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. 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 won't really know until the votes are counted in the nations most important secret ballot.

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