Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Confront racism, leader tells union

This just in from Gary Hicks in Boston...Right on! Labor is really taking this head on and getting a good response to it.

Confront racism, leader tells union
Issue shadows campaign for Obama, Haynes contends

By Maria Sacchetti, Globe Staff September 2, 2008

The state's top union leader, concerned that some white voters will not vote for Barack Obama because he is black, issued an impassioned plea to union members yesterday to confront racism on the campaign trail.
Speaking to politicians and pipefitters alike, Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes brought the audience to its feet at the Greater Boston Central Labor Council's annual Labor Day breakfast. He surprised many union members by delivering an unusually direct speech on the sensitive issue of racism, echoing concerns from other union leaders nationwide.
"Barack Obama's skin color isn't what matters in this election," Haynes told more than 350 people who gathered for bacon and eggs at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston. "I'll be damned, and I know you'll be damned, if I let racism . . . scare this country into voting for John McCain." Haynes followed US Senator John Kerry, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and union leaders who also urged workers to vote and campaign for Obama, citing the urgency of the election and the fact that Democrats have lost the last two presidential contests.
Only Haynes raised the issue of racism directly.
Haynes said he decided to confront racism head-on because he had been hearing racist comments about Obama - some subtle, some overt - in restaurants and mechanics' garages across Massachusetts. Recently on the Cape, for instance, an elderly man busing tables suggested that he would not vote for Obama and referred to black colleagues as "those people." In another case, he said, car mechanics who normally voted Democrat said they would not support Obama because he is black.
Haynes said he gave his speech because he wanted to give union members something to say in response to racism on the campaign trail. Yesterday, he told union members they could emphasize the economy and workers' rights. They could point out that black union members have been voting for white Democrats for president all their lives.
When all else fails, he said, make voters see the shame in racism.
"You've got to look them dead in the eye," he said. "Can you imagine telling your kid in this day and age that you're not going to vote for someone because of the color of their skin?"
Nationally, other union leaders have raised concerns about racism hurting Obama among working-class white people. The national AFL-CIO endorsed Obama in June and launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to urge people to vote for him.
Making the point is crucial now, Haynes said, as dozens of union members flock to New Hampshire and other swing states to campaign for Obama. Massachusetts unions could have a key influence on New Hampshire voters, he said; about 10,000 of New Hampshire's 40,000 union members work in Massachusetts.
Haynes said he had never given such a speech before - even when Deval Patrick, Massachusetts' first black governor, was running for the seat.
Haynes's speech inspired many in the crowd.
"I don't think racism should be the point of the election," said Arthur Johnson, a 52-year-old security guard from Revere who is white.
Lauren Jacobs, organizing director of the Local SEIU 615, said union members who are campaigning in New Hampshire are emphasizing the issues that Obama shares with all voters. Obama is the son of a single mother, she said, and he struggled to put himself through college, something that resonates with voters.
"People really connect with this guy," she said.
Haynes said racism was prevalent everywhere, not just in the unions, although he did not think that most voters were racist. Still, he said he decided to make it a major issue because even a small number rejecting Obama because of his race could hurt his chances.
"We can't afford to have this guy lose the presidency because of unspoken truths," he said afterward. Haynes represents 400,000 union members in Massachusetts.
After the speech, union members, white and black, approached Haynes to shake his hand, slap him on the shoulder, and thank him for his speech.
David Eastmond of Boston, an iron worker for more than 30 years, said he hoped union leaders would share the speech across the United States.
"As an African American, I've been voting . . . for white presidents all my life," he said. "When the tables are turned, we've got a good candidate. Why can't we vote for him?"

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