Labor, Virginia and Obama

RICHMOND, Va. — Members of more than a dozen AFL-CIO unions packed the Communications Workers Local 2201 union hall here, Nov. 2, divided up into 30 teams and fanned out across north Richmond to get out the vote for Barack Obama.

This reporter traveled here with a busload of Maryland trade unionists, joining one of hundreds of AFL-CIO “labor walks” in which 250,000 union members hit the streets across the nation to turn out the union vote for Obama. A flood of 436,000 newly registered voters in Virginia pushed the total of registered voters here to over 5 million, increasing Obama’s chances of carrying the state.

Denise Riley, political director of the Maryland-DC AFL-CIO, thanked the 45 men and women on our bus and reminded them of the high stakes in battleground Virginia. “If Obama carries Virginia, it’s virtually impossible for McCain to win,” she said.

Autumn leaves were flaming and the skies were blue on a perfect day. Voters were already waiting in line for four hours or more at polling places here to cast their ballots early. We were assigned to a mostly African American neighborhood in north Richmond.

Crystal Jackson, a stay-at-home mother, with her little girl Neyaa clinging to her skirts, told the World, “I think Obama will make a lot of changes and we need change. He is going to help young, single mothers like me. We need health care for people who can’t afford it.”

Titus Robinson, a retired bus driver active in the Amalgamated Transit Union retiree program, moved here with his wife from New Jersey 17 years ago. He offered his views of Republican John McCain. “He talks about change but if he is elected, it will be another four years of George W. Bush. My wife and I are backing Obama all the way.”

We talked to 25 or 30 voters, unanimously for Obama.

When we returned to the union hall, we were greeted by Doris Crouse-Mays, secretary-treasurer of the Virginia AFL-CIO. “Today is awesome not only here in Virginia but across the country,” she said. “It’s been a great day for organized labor.”

Dwight Johnson, a delegate in the Virginia state Legislature and now a candidate in this election for mayor of Richmond, drew cheers. “We’re going to turn Virginia blue,” he said. “The whole nation is watching us and the whole world is watching the United States.”

Instead of continuing Bush-Cheney policies that reward the rich, he said, “We’re going to do the right thing for those who need it most.” Johnson, who is African American, is favored to replace incumbent Richmond Mayor Doug Wilder, who made history in 1989 when he was elected governor of Virginia, the first Black person to hold that office.

Chris Lane, 33, president of CWA Local 2201, told the World he is the son of a union coal miner and a Marine Corps veteran. Election of Obama means an end to “tax breaks for corporations that “ship our jobs overseas,” he said. “Obama’s biggest challenge is digging out from all the problems left behind by the Bush administration, getting the economy going, dealing with the financial crisis, ending the war in Iraq, providing health care for all, everything the union members I represent hold near and dear.”

Swift enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act, he said, is high on the agenda. “Obama said he will sign it. It is the most important pro-labor legislation ever. I truly believe in my heart of hearts that every worker would join a union if he or she was not being harassed and intimidated.”

Lane hailed Obama’s plan to get the economy moving. “He supports alternative fuels, green jobs. It’s going to stimulate the economy and create millions of new jobs,” he said.

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