Obama struggles with blue-collar workers

Democratic National Convention
A cardboard cutout of President Barack Obama sticks out of James Long of Bessemer, N.C., shirt pocket at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Many white, blue-collar workers who have soured on the president and his policies want to know what he will do to improve the economy. And no single group wants to know that more than blue-collar workers.

On Monday, the day before the convention started, several labor organizations marched through downtown Charlotte at an annual Labor Day parade.

Many of those in the parade wore their union shirts and talked enthusiastically about the strength of unions. But they were not so enthusiastic about the state of the economy.

"The jobs just aren't there. Nobody is hiring," said Chris Cecil, a member of the Teamsters Union from Greensboro, N.C. "I just don't see it. The economic recovery is just stagnating."

Cecil said he is frustrated and partly blames the president. While unhappy with Obama, Cecil says he doesn't like Republican candidate Mitt Romney either. Cecil is not the only white, blue-collar worker who is disappointed with the president.

"Barack Obama may suffer the largest loss in blue collar votes in decades," said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

"He is just suffering a fleeing among what used to be the union, blue-collar base in the Democratic Party."

Chris Cecil
Chris Cecil is a member of the Teamster Union in Greensboro, NC. He's not happy with how President Obama is handling the economy. He was speaking after the Labor Day parade in Charlotte, N.C.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Blue collar workers have been hit harder by the economic downturn than other Americans, and that's why they may be looking to Romney rather than Obama, Jacobs said.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, acknowledges he has seen "pockets of disgruntlement" among union members. Trumka said the president's decision to use federal money to help General Motors and Chrysler puts him in a good position with other union workers.

"We're finding the enthusiasm, we're getting people out. We're getting people energized," Trumka said. "We asking our activists to come out and our activists are responding."

Union membership has been dropping nationally over the past few decades. Rank-and-file workers are also not as willing as they once were to follow labor leaders on politics. Those changes are showing up in Minnesota, especially in the northeastern part of the state which traditionally has been a reliable DFL stronghold.

It was there that Republican Chip Cravaack defeated long-time DFL congressional incumbent Jim Oberstar in 2010. Scott Bunney, a member of National Association of Letter Carriers out of Ely, is backing both Romney and Cravaack this year, he said, because many Democratic candidates no longer reflect his beliefs. He says he's not the only one.

"I know more people this election who are not going to vote for Democrats than ever before," Bunney said.

Bunney said he's an independent and still intends to vote for Democrats Tom Bakk and David Dill for the Legislature.

Democratic National Convention: Day 2
Attendees cheer during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on Sept. 5, 2012 in Charlotte, N.C. The DNC that will run through Sept. 7, will nominate U.S. President Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Bakk, the Senate minority leader from Cook, said a lot of people in his district are conservative on social issues and support gun rights issues typically more in line with Republicans. But Bakk expects recent efforts to weaken collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and other states will hurt Republicans.

"I think you're going to see working class people, both union and non-union, a lot of them who have voted Republican for different reasons are going to rethink that in this election," Bakk said.

Bakk believes Obama will still do well in northeastern Minnesota. He predicts a 10-point lead over Romney in that region on Election Day.

But demographic changes and population loss mean the region is not the DFL stronghold that it was decades ago, said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin. Even so, he said Democrats still outnumber Republicans in northeastern Minnesota.

"We need to do work up there and we need to make sure that our base gets out to vote, and we need to do work on persuading independent or Democrat-leaning voters up there," Martin said. "We can't just take it for granted anymore. We have to actually do the work to turn out that vote."

Martin and other DFL leaders hope Obama's speech tonight helps fire up Democratic volunteers so that they're eager to do that work once the convention is over.