Unionist ticks off AFL-CIO political agenda

Union bigs grab political power even as they lose members

Mark Gaffney, president of Michigan's AFL-CIO doesn't have to work hard at telling union members that the last eight years have been bad. Few have much use for George W. Bush. Nor do they have any love for John McCain. But he knows very well there are white, blue-collar union workers who just won't vote for a black man.

He's heard the stories. The guy who works in the mailroom who says he just isn't going to vote for president this year. The electrician who says he isn't biased, but some of his friends, well ... Will they abandon the ticket in enough numbers to prevent Barack Obama from carrying a state that voted for Al Gore and John Kerry, a state that is the most economically distressed in the nation?

"That's the real question, isn't it?" said Gaffney, 52, a lifelong Teamster who has led the labour federation for a tough nine years.

"You can't say (race) is not out there because it is out there. But I think in the end, the number will be pretty small."

Though he looks like a man who was born to be in a union hall, Gaffney is in fact a labour intellectual with a master's degree in industrial relations. "This is an extremely important election," he tells audiences around the state. "On just about every issue, Obama is right and McCain has been wrong."

He ticks off a series of votes and shakes his head. "Their free trade is putting our members and a lot of other people out of work.

"We've had nothing but bad trade deal after bad trade deal," Gaffney said. He admits that the campaign got a slow start among union folks. Part of it was the mess Democrats made of the primary.

"Normally, we'd have a corps of people who worked for Obama in the primary, but since he didn't campaign here, we had to start from scratch," he said. But in an interview, the labour leader said his numbers were gradually building. "We're at or slightly ahead of where (John) Kerry was at at this point," in the 2004 campaign.

But even if labour turns out its usual massive percentages for the Democratic nominee, there is another problem: the incredible shrinking unionized work force. As of last year, only 19.5 per cent of Michigan workers belonged to a union.

That figure has been falling nearly every year since the 1950s. The numbers are much grimmer when you look at the private sector.

There, thanks in part to the shrinking auto sector and the work-from-home computer revolution, unions only represent 7.5 per cent of all workers, both nationwide and in Michigan.

They aren't quitting the union; their jobs are vanishing, and the labour movement has had little success at organizing new workers.

The AFL-CIO leader knows that. Following the election, whoever wins, Gaffney intends to push hard for a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it much easier for workers to form bargaining units and join unions.

Last year it passed the House, but was bottled up in the Senate, where enough votes couldn't be found to limit debate.

That disappointed Obama, who then said: "The current process for organizing a workplace denies too many workers the ability to do so. The Employee Free Choice Act offers to make binding an alternative process under which a majority of employees can sign up to join a union."

"President Obama should be able to sign that bill within his first 100 days," Gaffney said. He didn't mention what he thought would happen if John McCain wins the election.

The Republican denounced the act in the Senate last year, calling it "deceptive" and a "gross distortion."

Labour leaders are hoping that if they can get the rank-and-file to focus on the issues, they'll forget any problems they have with colour.

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How Clean Are Michigan Elections? Michigan election officials pride themselves on what they think is one of the smoothest-running and most professional election systems in the country.

Yet Common Cause, the non-partisan public service organization, and the Century Foundation have just completed a major study of "voting preparedness" in 10 major swing states that indicates that the Wolverine State has room for improvement.

Michigan did get outstanding marks for its centralized statewide "Qualified Voter File" and gets mostly "acceptable" grades on how it actually conducts elections. But Tova Wang, Common Cause's vice-president for research, said the state gets failing grades for how it handles ballots cast in the wrong precinct.

Michigan also makes it too easy for someone to challenge somebody's right to vote and doesn't do enough to recruit poll workers. The state also doesn't require that enough of the new optical scan voting machines be provided to all precincts everywhere.

What remains to be seen is how the new requirement that all voters display photo ID (or sign an affidavit) will work this November.

- Jack Lessenberry, a member of Wayne State University's journalism faculty, writes on issues and people in Michigan.


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