AFL-CIO president James Hoffa is working to pull labor votes for Barack Obama. (Photo: Eugene Hoshiko / AP)
Denver - As Barack Obama tries to convince blue-collar voters that he's one of them, union leaders acknowledge that some of their white constituents are still reluctant to support an African American for president.
"There are people who are not going to vote for him because he's black," said James Hoffa, president of the Teamsters. "And we've got to hope that we can educate people to put aside their racism and to put their own interests No. 1."
Union members are a traditional Democratic constituency that Obama needs to win.
In 2007, there were 12.7 million white union members, far more than the 2.1 million black, 1.8 million Hispanic and 654,000 Asian members reported, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the average union employee makes $44,876 a year, compared to $34,476 for nonunion employees.
Union leaders expect their voters to support Obama on Election Day, but acknowledge that there are some that are not yet convinced to vote for the Illinois senator.
"There are still a chunk of union voters who are undecided, and there are some who are nervous about him," said Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO. "We feel that (race) is an issue. It's not the only issue. It's complicated by other issues such as unfamiliarity and inexperience, but it is an issue."
The AFL-CIO expects one in every four voters going to the polls on Nov. 4 will be from a union household, and a full fourth of the Democratic National Convention delegates are union members, and organized labor is expected to pump more than $200 million into Democratic coffers by Election Day.
Part of the problem is that Obama is a relative newcomer to the national scene, and many union members aren't yet familiar with his pro-labor policies.
Obama, who Republicans have labeled as "elitist," needs to find a way to relate with blue collar workers, with whom he has more in common than Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Change to Win Chair Anna Burger said.
"What the Barack Obama campaign needs to do is tell his story," she said.
"Barack Obama has got to meet more with workers, and go out into the schools and the factories, and show them he is concerned about the situation they're in," added John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.
Unions have a good track record of eventually getting their members to support their candidates, said Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
"It's all those other blue collared workers who are not members of unions that he's going to have problems with," he said. "But if he can convince us, it'll make it easier to convince the rest of them."
Buffenbarger's union has yet to endorse Obama, since it was one of at least 12 AFL-CIO unions and one Change to Win union that endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton and worked feverishly to get her the nomination. Obama had no major union endorsements until February, while Clinton's began pouring in last summer.
Buffenbarger voted "present" when the AFL-CIO voted to endorse the Illinois senator in June, and said his union will endorse Obama at their national convention after Clinton releases her delegates. Clinton had a detailed plan on how she was going to improve the lives of union members, while Obama "needs a lot more specificity," Buffenbarger said.
Organized labor hopes an Obama presidency can help them reverse their recent decline - 12.1 percent of the working population last year from 20 percent in 1983.
This is the first presidential election since the organized labor movement split into two factions: the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, whose seven unions defected from the AFL-CIO in 2005. Both organizations pledge to work together to get Obama elected.