Unions say Obama has Reagan Democrats on his side

By John Schroyer

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is running strong among Reagan Democrats but is dead even with Republican John McCain among white working class Americans, according to a new poll released Aug. 25 by the labor coalition Change to Win.

The poll, conducted by the Washington D.C.-based Lake Research Partners, found that Obama has the support of 79 percent of self-identified Reagan Democrats, the bloc of moderates who delivered landslide victories for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Working class voters also favor Obama by a 19-point margin over McCain, 53 percent to 34 percent.

When race is taken into account, however, Obama and McCain are virtually tied among white blue-collar voters, 43 percent to 44 percent. Black working class voters overwhelmingly support Obama, 90 percent to 5 percent, and Hispanic voters are also solidly behind him, 75 percent to 10 percent.

It also found that 71 percent of all working class Americans believe that the economic policies of the Bush administration have pushed the “American Dream” even further out of reach and made it harder for them to earn a good living, purchase a home and send their children to college.

The findings of the poll, conducted with 700 non-supervisory workers nationwide from Aug. 13 to 19, led union leaders to a very simple conclusion — in order to win the White House, Obama needs to concentrate on the economy.

“Now voters say, ‘It’s really the economy, stupid,’” quipped Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, the president of Lake Research Partners, referring to the 1992 slogan that helped Bill Clinton win the White House.

She also noted that Obama enjoys several key advantages over McCain when it comes to working class voters. For one thing, workers have watched their wages stagnate over the past eight years and have been dissatisfied with the direction of the country. There is also a sense, said Lake, that Obama understands the working class struggles more so than McCain, and that Obama would do well to campaign on a platform of a more progressive tax structure and forcing health care costs down.

Those are key differences, Lake said, that could tip the scales for Obama. “Engaging that difference between the economic plans is a great way to turn that dead even race into a winning race,” Lake said.

She warned, however, that Obama is going to have to work his way to the White House and can’t just coast in on President George W. Bush’s low approval ratings.

“The race is not over yet. The race is even among white working Americans, and that will continue to be a battleground til the day before the election,” Lake stressed.

Which is why the Change to Win coalition, along with other unions, are mobilizing for the fall election. They know what’s at stake and they don’t want to lose. Change to Win is running campaign efforts in 13 battleground states, including Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nevada, Michigan, Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia.

Though union membership has dropped by 50 percent over the last 30 years, their power remains undimmed, said Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers International Union of North America. He predicted that unions will “unequivocally” play a pivotal role in the fall campaign season.

“And it’s not an opinion. It’s a fact. If you look at 2000 and 2004, organized labor accounted for about 25 percent of the vote. So membership numbers are not indicative of political strength of the American labor union,” O’Sullivan said. “Membership may be down … but it certainly hasn’t diminished the strength of the American labor movement.”

Union membership statewide has plummeted in Colorado, from 16 percent in 1989 to 8 percent in 2007. By comparison, the statewide workforces of Ohio and Pennsylvania remain strongly unionized, at 14 percent and 15 percent respectively.

No matter, said Colorado AFL-CIO Executive Director Mike Cerbo. He said labor will be out in full force in Colorado this fall, driven not only by Obama but to support and oppose several ballot measures.

“There’s going to be a lot of factors that tip the balance, and I think (unions are) going to be one of them,” Cerbo predicted.

O’Sullivan added that many of the union members will be driven to the polls by “their own economic self-interest,” and said that if McCain is elected and enacts his health care policy, health benefits will become taxable. That would equate to an annual bill of roughly $2,500 per working family, O’Sullivan said. And if McCain also gets his way and repeals the federal prevailing wage law, the average worker will take a 35 percent pay cut, O’Sullivan added.

“Why would you support somebody that effectively would give you a 35 percent pay cut and a $2,500 bill for your health benefits?” O’Sullivan asked rhetorically.

Also during the Change to Win briefing, Economic Policy Institute President Lawrence Mishel said Obama needs to concentrate on restoring pay equity, and noted that while the average CEO salary has gone up to 275 times the average worker’s salary, employee earnings have stagnated and even gone down in some cases.

“I would describe the economy over the last 30 years as a skimming operation. The workers produce the income, they produce the goods and services, and the upper echelon receives it,” Mishel said.

Despite O’Sullivan’s confidence in union abilities, Mishel said that because of decreased membership unions have “not able to set the standard” for wages and contracts as they could in the first half of the 20th century.


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