STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. A top labor leader is making an unusually blunt pitch to working class white voters in key battleground states. Longtime United Mine Workers President Richard Trumka, who is now Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, is making the case for Barack Obama. He's also confronting the sensitive topic of race and the presidential election. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Cleveland.
DON GONYEA: Because Barack Obama is the first African-American ever to win a major party presidential nomination, race has taken a prominent role in this year's election. That said, it's still rare to hear the topic confronted quite so directly as Richard Trumka has this campaign season.
Mr. RICHARD TRUMKA (Secretary-Treasurer, AFL-CIO): We can't tap dance around the fact that there is a lot of folks out there, and a lot of them are good union people, they just can't get past the idea that there's something wrong with voting for a black man. Well, those of us who know better can't afford to sit silently or look the other way while it's happening.
GONYEA: That recording of a July speech to the United Steel Workers Convention has been widely circulated thanks to YouTube. Since then, Trumka has repeated it at union halls around the country. Yesterday he was in Cleveland where he sat down to talk at Steelworkers Local 979. Trumka is white. Asked why he's giving this speech, he tells the story of a conversation he had the day of the Pennsylvania primary this year in his hometown of Nemacolin, in the southwest corner of the state.
Mr. TRUMKA: This woman walks up to me. I've known her for a long time. And I asked her, I said, decided who you're going to vote for?
GONYEA: The woman responded.
Mr. TRUMKA: There's no way I'd ever vote for Barack Obama.
GONYEA: Trumka says he pressed her as to why. She eventually offered this.
Mr. TRUMKA: Her eyes dropped down and she says to me, well, he's a black man. And I said, look at this town. This town is dying, literally dying.
GONYEA: That thought continues in his speech.
Mr. TRUMKA: Our kids are moving away because there's no future here. And here is a man, Barack Obama, who's going to fight for people like us, and you want to tell me that you won't vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind, lady?
GONYEA: In Cleveland yesterday, Trumka stopped by a hulking steel mill not far from the union hall.
Mr. TRUMKA: Would you guys come into the fishbowl for a minute?
GONYEA: The fishbowl is the lunch room. About a dozen workers sit at long tables.
Unidentified Man: We're in town. We're talking to people about the election, tell you about the importance of getting out and to vote.
GONYEA: Overall Trumka found a pretty receptive audience at the steel mill. As is often the case, the questions that came directly to him were not about race.
Mr. DAVE MOLLER (Worker, Steel Mill): Yeah. I want to know why we're not backing McCain if his running mate's married to a steelworker.
GONYEA: That's 50-year-old Dave Moller. He's worked here for 32 years. Trumka responds, focusing on the top of the Republican ticket.
Mr. TRUMKA: McCain and all his policies are bad for us. Every single policy he has, has been bad for us.
GONYEA: But Moller persisted, raising another concern common among steelworkers and other blue-collar voters.
Mr. MOLLER: We don't need our guns taken away either, but he wants to do that.
Mr. TRUMKA: No, that's not true. That's absolutely not true. He believes in the Second Amendment and by the way, I'm a sportsman.
GONYEA: After a few minutes of this, everyone shook hands. Trumka headed outside. He said such encounters are valuable whether the discussion is guns or something like abortion, which also comes up frequently, or Barack Obama's race. He'll continue making the rounds between now and Election Day. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Cleveland.