A California nurse talks to a Pennsylvania voter.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Female-dominated unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and the California Nurses Association are playing key roles in the AFL-CIO’s push for Sen. Barack Obama in Rust Belt states where polls show the election is likely to be decided.

Their key message: Obama has the expertise to fix their families’ financial concerns.

“Being a member of a mostly female union of office workers in the Detroit public schools helps open doors,” said Elois T. Moore, vice president of local 4168 of the Washington-based American Federation of Teachers, which is sending hundreds of volunteers to Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania this weekend. “Members take one look at me and realize that I understand their economic concerns, the No. 1 issue in the campaign.”

The AFL-CIO, a federation of 56 national and international unions, launched a $53.4 million grassroots campaign this summer to encourage its 10.5 million members across the nation to vote on Nov. 4 for Obama, the Democrat from Illinois.

Although the unions’ campaign has had considerable success in visits to work sites and members’ homes in most of the battleground states, support for Obama has lagged in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where union members represent 25 to 35 percent of all voters. The McCain campaign pulled out of Michigan on Oct. 5, but unions have kept up the pressure because it is rich in electoral votes.

In 2004, President Bush defeated his challenger, Democratic Sen. John Kerry, by 286 to 252 electoral votes despite endorsements from most major unions.

To win, Obama must hold the Kerry states and add 18 electoral votes to achieve 270, the winning threshold. In 2004, however, Kerry won Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes and Michigan’s 17 votes but lost Ohio’s 20 votes.

“Obama didn’t compete in the Michigan primary, so many of the undecided members I call on in Detroit and surrounding blue-collar suburbs aren’t aware of his pro-labor stands on job creation, health care and, most important of all, education,” said Moore. “Unlike McCain, who said manufacturing jobs won’t be coming back, Obama has a strong jobs creation plan, which is extremely important to Michigan.”

Post-Clinton Resentment Lingers

Moore encounters lingering resentment among some union members that New York Sen. Hillary Clinton–who won the Democratic primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania–isn’t on the ticket.

“As a member of the AFT–one of the first unions to endorse Clinton and which worked hard in 14 states to secure her nomination–I’m in a good position to convince Hillary’s supporters that Obama is dedicated to helping working women by supporting equal pay for equal work,” she said. “Obama left the campaign to vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which McCain opposed, saying it was unnecessary.”

To woo retired workers who battled for benefits, Moore mentions that unlike McCain, Obama has supported paid sick leave, which would benefit 22 million working women who don’t have a single paid sick day, and has pledged to protect Social Security benefits, the primary support of a majority of women over 65.

Moore finds that being a member of the teachers’ union helps her overcome racial prejudice among white union members in manufacturing industries.

“Everybody wants a good education for their kids,” said Moore. “When someone says to me, ‘I can’t vote for Obama because he is black,’ I ask them ‘Would you vote for someone who would make sure that your child has an excellent education, so that he or she won’t be unemployed and have to leave Michigan to find a job?'”

Moore says she also emphasizes Obama’s plans to expand early childhood education and financial aid for college students.

California Nurses Reach Across Nation

The California Nurses Association, and its national arm the National Nurses Organizing Committee, is also sending hundreds of volunteers to the Rust Belt this week to encourage union members to vote for Obama because he and the Democratic Party are “pro-union.”

“Our union has some of the best collective bargaining contracts in the nation, so we have a lot of credibility when we warn undecided union members that McCain would continue the Bush administration’s policies that are designed to destroy the union movement,” said Kay McVay, president emeritus of the California Nurses Association, based in Oakland, Calif., and has 80,000 members in 50 states.

When the buses stop at work sites in Cleveland, Toledo, Philadelphia and other industrial cities, the nurses stress that McCain has voted to block the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize; filibustered a minimum wage hike last year; and voted against a bill protecting discrimination against workers who strike, effectively allowing companies to hire permanent replacements for them.

“But it is McCain’s disastrous health care plan that gets undecided workers to think twice about voting for him,” said Deborah Burger, co-president of the California Nurses Association-National Nurses Organizing Committee. “He wants to move people from employer-paid health coverage to fend alone in the individual private insurance market. Individuals and families would end up with less coverage and higher cost plans, leaving them to gamble with their health and financial security.”

Although Obama’s health plan falls short of the association’s goal–enacting a single-payer system–Burger tells union members that it is a “step in the right direction because it builds on the current employee-based system and adds a new public plan option and tighter oversight of insurance company abuse.”

Calling the Rust Belt

Some members are making long-distance calls to other union workers in the Rust Belt.

Erica Kent is a 25-year-old member of local 675 of the United Steel Workers in Carson, Calif. She participates in a phone bank launched by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in September, which expects to contact over 200,000 union members across the nation by Election Day. Names are supplied by the national office of the AFL-CIO.

“Because Gov. Sarah Palin’s husband is a member of the United Steel Workers Union, I am often asked whether union members should vote for the McCain-Palin ticket,” said Kent. “I say, ‘No! Just because Palin’s husband is one of 850,000 dues-paying members of my union, it does nothing to abolish McCain of his long history of anti-union sentiment.'”

Kent also mentions that Women of Steel, which represents female members of the union, sent McCain a letter in September commending him for selecting a female running mate but criticizing him for tapping someone so unqualified.

At the end of the conversation, Kent asks union members whether she can count on their support. She enters the answer–yes, no or maybe–into the database, which is e-mailed to the Washington headquarters of the AFL-CIO.

“Although more people in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are saying yes, I’m going to make even more calls in the last few days because the future of the labor movement depends on it,” said Kent. “I will be so busy that I won’t have time to walk my dog, but he doesn’t mind because he is a staunch Obama supporter.”

Sharon Johnson is a New York City freelance writer.

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