Organized labor has set its sights on winning western Pennsylvania for Barack Obama.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney came to the Electrical Workers ( IBEW) Local 712 hall in Vanport on Oct. 25. He was joined by United Steelworkers ( USW) top officials, as well as members of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team who were scheduled to be at the afternoon rally. In between, the unions deployed more than 2,200 rank-and-file union members to knock on the doors of some 31,000 union family homes across the state in a single afternoon, an effort that will become even more earnest over the next several days.
I arrived in the morning’s gray drizzle, unlike the sunny fall days of the last month of Saturday “labor walks.” Media work was my task for the day, and I made sure a New York Times reporter quickly met all the local union officials and pro-union local candidates.
While I was getting wired on black coffee and a jelly donut, Bob Schmetzer, a local IBEW official, handed me one of his home-made fliers. “Here, whaddya think of this?” he said. “I got it off the Internet.” It was one of the now-classic pieces that expose the undercurrent of white supremacy in the campaign, using role reversal: “What if John McCain graduated at the top of his class at Harvard, and Obama came in at the bottom of his class with the record of a goof-off? What do you think Fox and the right-wing talk shows would be doing with that?” It gave a dozen more examples, using irony and good humor to make a very serious point.
“Terrific,” I told Bob, “We have to get people thinking about things like this. It arms them against the right.” He agreed, and worked the hall, pulling over one after another of his key guys, giving each of them the leaflet, going over it with them. He’s thinking ahead, educating his troops, knowing that this battle’s more than just dollars and cents.
Sweeney’s arrival was low key. Hovering nearby was a young union staff woman, Yael Foa, assigned by the AFL-CIO to work with us in Beaver County. She’s talented and tireless, but stood to the side, beaming as Sweeney greeted each union member as if he or she were family. Wearing his union jacket and cap, white hair and the trace Irish lilt in his voice, he’s soft-spoken and warm with everyone and gets the same in return. People like and respect him.
But on the platform he’s a firebrand.
You’re the reason Obama is out in front in Pennsylvania. Make no mistake; each of you here is very important. Of all the things that we do—mailings, advertisements, phone banking—there’s nothing more effective or more persuasive than what you’re doing today, a personal visit from one union brother or sister to another. Beaver County is the key to western Pennslvania, western Pennsylvania is the key to Pennsylvania—and without Pennsylvania, there’s no way McCain can win!
Sweeney closed by pushing the entire ticket, from Obama at the top to Vince Biancucci and Dennis Rousseau, both local guys with a union history, for state representatives at the base. He stressed the AFL-CIO’s core message: No more nonsense about privatizing Social Security and putting it into the stock market, he said. No more notions of taxing health care benefits—extend health care to everyone. No more nonsense about de-regulation of banking and Wall Street. They’ve made a huge mess, and we need a New Deal and a new leadership to turn things around. Obama is the most pro-labor candidate we’ve ever seen, so shift into high gear and let’s make him our president.
Now everyone was appropriately fired up as they donned “Steelworkers for Obama” T-shirts and hit the streets of nearby mill towns and the back roads in the semi-rural township hills and hollows for the next four hours.
While this is a key area, it’s only one small part of organized labor’s effort in this campaign. Aside from millions of dollars spent on print and other media pushing “Green Jobs,” health care and the right of unions to organize, both the AFL-CIO-affiliated unions and Change to Win-affiliated unions like SEIU are making a common front, working together on this election. This weekend alone, more than 250,000 union volunteers across the country are on the streets going door to door. Busloads from safe areas like New York City spend weekends in the rural Pennsylvania Poconos or working-class neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Car caravans from Chicago work the factory towns of Indiana, Kentucky and western Ohio. There’s nothing quite like seeing it in motion: “Awesome!” as Obama’s younger volunteers put it, although they’ve done some pretty awesome things themselves.
The mid-afternoon sun broke through the clouds. I returned to the union hall after joining the Beaver County Peace Links event—a weekly vigil at the court house for more than five years now, with our “Bring the Troops Home Now!” banner and “Honk for Peace!” signs.
The union parking lot was filling up for “Steel Blitz for Barack” time. Soon a bus would arrive carrying Dan Rooney, owner emeritus of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team; Edmond Nelson, former Steelers star defensive lineman; USW President Leo W. Gerard; and other union officials and players.
Outsiders might not get it, but in an area where “Steelerism” comes close to being a state religion, THIS IS A BIG DEAL. Dozens of young, mostly white kids, boys and girls, were bundled up against the wind, plastering each others’ coats, front and back, with “Union Voters for Obama” and “Steelers for Obama” stickers, clutching autograph books, waiting for their heroes.
Inside, Billy George, head of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, warmed up the packed hall. George is from the tough McDonald Heights neighborhood of nearby Aliquippa, home of defunct Jones and Laughlin Steel, once the largest steel mill in the world. He was with USW Local 1211, a powerful and militant local in its day.
“What time is it?” he yelled into the mike. “UNION TIME!” the room yelled back, no prompting needed. George predicted that the Steelers will win their division, then the Super Bowl, and then he asked, “Who will be the president to greet and open the Super Bowl?” “BARACK OBAMA!” the crowd roared.
George got serious and turned to labor history. He spoke about the fierce battles by the Steelworkers Organizing Committee in the 1930s and the historical marker that sits at the old plant gate in downtown Aliquippa. The marker recalls the 1937 U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of Aliquippa’s workers in the case that finally broke the back of reaction and allowed nationwide union organization to spread and FDR’s New Deal to accelerate.
Social Security came out of this. Our right to organize came out of this. These are the most important things we’ve ever won, and now McCain and the Republicans want to “privatize” it or take it back. Can you imagine if they put your Social Security in the stock market? No way, no way we’ll let them. I know everyone here agrees with me, but I want four full shifts out of each and every one of you in the next 10 days. Get this message out to your neighbors, relatives and everyone else around here that knows better, or ought to.
Next up was Leo Gerard, the Canadian-born international president of the United Steelworkers. Even with his north-of-the-border accent, he knows the exact language of this group today.
We’ve been getting the shaft, but this is our time, we’re going to turn it completely around. We’ve never had a candidate like Barack Obama.
After the thank-you’s and standard lines, Gerard asks the workers here to follow a thought experiment with him: to imagine a candidate born to wealth and privilege of the high officer class. Follow him as he fritters away his studies. Recognize and respect his service, but when he gets back, he dumps his first wife and marries into brewery millions. He goes to Congress with the goal of letting the banks run wild and voting against the unions 85 percent of the time. He’s so wealthy, he doesn’t even know how many homes he has.
Now imagine, Gerard went on, a candidate with a single mother, who works hard, but leaves him mainly with Kansas grandparents to raise him. They sacrifice everything to get him an education. He gets to Harvard, top of his class. Wall Street is offering hundreds of thousands of dollars just for sign-up bonuses, but what does he do? He decides to give something back. He works for a church group on the South Side of Chicago, with the unemployed laid-off workers, many of them steelworkers, helping them get retrained, helping them find a future.
The Republicans want to talk about character! What does this tell you about it? What does this tell you about the difference between these two men? I listened to right-wing radio yesterday, making fun of Obama for going to visit his dying grandmother, the woman who gave everything to see him succeed. He set aside the time to see her while she could still hear his voice, and they mock it.
McCain and the Republicans have been running around like “Robin Hood in Reverse,” then dump all this slime on Obama and us, and we’re supposed to shut up and like it? No, take the measure of these two men. Take the measure of which one stands with family as we know it, take the measure of which one can benefit the working class that we’re part of. Obama is going to be a great president, and we’re going to put him there.
By this time there was not a dry eye in the house. The Steeler’s Dan Rooney took the mike to add his admiration of Obama. But the most powerful applause comes for linebacker Edmond Nelson, a huge man who dwarfed everyone else on the platform.
He shouted out:
I’m for Barack Obama because I hate this war in Iraq. I hate this war because of the lies told us about “Weapons of Mass Destruction” to drag us into it. I’m for Obama because I hate what’s been done to our soldiers and the people of Iraq.
His words brought the strongest applause of the afternoon.
But Nelson, an African American, closed with “I’m for Barack Obama because I want to see people who look like me get a fair shake and a decent chance in this society.” Again, powerful applause from a group that’s more than 90 percent white but knows exactly what he means.
As the autograph lines started forming, one of the AFL-CIO chiefs brought the room back to order, saying: “One last speaker, one of the most important. She’s going to tell you what to do.”
Kyra Ricci, a petite twenty-something with a terrific smile but also a “listen up now” sense of command, laid out the tasks of the final days. She had her young people with their sign-up clipboards stationed around the hall so they wouldn’t be gotten by without a commitment.It was the perfect counterpoint to end the day. Three powerful movements are coming together here—organized labor, the African American fight for justice and a new anti-war youth insurgency. Given the sense of class-conscious solidarity and unity in the hall, it’s hard to see how McCain and the GOP can stop them. But it’s also clear that an Obama White House, in calling for partners for “change from below,” also will face forces that will not be easily deflected or denied.