I don’t know how it’s possible to get more working-class — or as Americans prefer to describe people who work with their hands, blue collar — than my father. My father, Robert, didn’t finish high school and even a modicum of economic stability eluded him until he became a union electrician in the mid 1960s. Before becoming a union member, my dad bumped around from job to job, painting houses one month, working as a janitor the next.
There is an awkward psychological tendency to romanticize the struggles of parents, substituting only virtue for what they could have only regarded as painful and sometimes shame producing economic difficulties. But there is one area of my father’s life that I do not view through rose colored glasses — how he dealt with the issue of race.
My father was not a sociologist. He did not attempt to analyze the various factors that either increased or decreased the likelihood of racial tension in a community. I’m fairly certain he never heard of the term “white skin privilege,” a phrase in academic vogue in the 1960s. He believed that blacks had “gotten the shaft,” as he put it, in the United States. From that premise flowed the concern that his kids understand some of the implications of that history.
He had a simple philosophy that he expressed consistently. Treat everyone with respect and dignity no matter what their skin color or background. I remember loud arguments he had with his brother in law — a Navy man from San Diego who was not exactly enlightened about the potential for interracial solidarity. His brother in law’s comments about civil rights and blacks in general, were not pretty.
In Lompoc, located in a rural area near the ocean north of Santa Barbara, we only experienced the aroma of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. Politically at that time, the demographics of Lompoc matched the demographics of the state. The percentage of registered Democrats to Republicans and the percentage of Latinos — (primarily from Mexico back then) — and African Americans matched the overall California numbers. In a sense, Lompoc was the Peoria of California. In elections — the voting results from Lompoc consistently matched the statewide returns.
While there was a significant African American community, you had to take the hour long drive south to the University of California, Santa Barbara to get a sense that a significant civil rights movement was underway. While not entirely immune from the larger tides of history, there was a feeling that critical events happened elsewhere.
Viewed from a distance, my father was not that different then the other white, blue collar workers in town. In terms of race feelings however, I regarded his union as providing a hopeful opportunity. During the late 1960s, the building trades unions were just beginning the slow process of evolving from mostly white kinship networks — where the ability to get in the union was related to family ties — into more inclusive institutions. Even the official history book of my father’s union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, describes the organization as “lily white” up through the 1950s.
But at his union meetings I attended as a kid, and in the union publications I glanced through, there was at least the pervasive language of class solidarity that seemed to trump skin color.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson suspected that with the passage of the key Civil Rights legislation during his Presidency, that the dominance of the Democratic Party in the South would be shattered. He was right. White working class voters deserted the Democratic Party and became a crucial base for Richard Nixon’s and Ronald Reagan’s electoral victories.
While a fuller integration of his union would take years, I believe the language and the union ethos that he was exposed to — a kind of social and ideological infrastructure — gave my father a chance to hold onto his loftier ideals through the so-called “backlash” period that came in the wake of those civil rights surges. When you are active in an organization that professes an egalitarian ethos, it becomes more difficult to jettison those values in your everyday life.
A few months ago, Richard Trumka, the Secretary Treasurer of the AFL-CIO gave a speech at a Steelworkers Union convention in Las Vegas. The talk, primarily about race, was later widely circulated in labor circles on the internet. He told the gathering of Steelworkers that “We can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of white folks out there — a lot of them good union people — who just can’t get past the idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a black man.” Trumka added that there were several good reasons to vote for Obama, but only one “really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama — and that’s because he’s not white.”
Trumka, not surprisingly, received a standing ovation at the convention. Racism, sexism and other odious social practices are routinely denounced at union conventions these days. The more interesting developments will play out on Election Day.
What will be surprising is if unions — who have poured millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers into supporting Obama — cannot hold their white working class members in support of Obama by appealing to their economic interests like I believe my father’s union held him.
In recent Presidential elections, union voters — compared with similar non-union voters — have traditionally supported Democratic candidates over Republicans by 10 to 15 percentage points. In 2004 while George W. Bush beat Democratic challenger John Kerry among white male voters by a 62 to 37 percent margin, white male union members voted for Kerry by a 59 to 38 percent difference.
On November 4th, with the first African American on the ballot who has a real shot at becoming President, I’ll be looking to see if that past trend plays out in a significant way. Will white union members support Obama in much higher numbers than their white non-union counterparts? I’m betting that they will.
Kelly Candaele is President of the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees. He worked for several years as a union organizer and with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.