Tuesday, October 28, 2008

SteelBlitz: AFL-CIO and Steelers in Western PA

Photo: Kyle Jones, Beaver Falls Obama Fan

Steelers and
Go All Out For
Obama in Western PA

By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue

Organized labor has set its sights on winning Beaver County and all of Western Pennsylvania for Barack Obama. They see victory in this battleground "swing state" as critical to the entire election nationwide, and are pulling out their big guns, all stops and every other available advantage to "Git 'er done."

That's the message made loud and clear by the visit of AFL-CIO chief John Sweeny to the IBEW Local 712 Hall here in Vanport, Pa this Saturday morning, October 25.

Sweeny's visit kicked off an all-day effort, and was teamed with a joint visit of United Steelworker union top officials and pro-Obama Pittsburgh Steelers players for a rally at the same hall later in the afternoon. In between, the unions deployed over 2200 rank-and-file union members to knock of the doors of some 31,000 union family homes across the state in a single afternoon, an effort that will get even more earnest in the next ten days.

I arrived early in a grey drizzle of a morning, unlike the glorious 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'm getting wired on black coffee and a jelly donut, Bob Schmetzer, a local IBEW official, hands me one of his home-made flyers.

"Here, whaddya think of this?" he says. "I got it off the Internet." It's one of the now-classic pieces bouncing around exposing the undercurrent of unstated white supremacy in the campaign, using role reversal. "What if John McCain graduated and 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 rightwing talk shows would be doing with that?" It gives a dozen more examples, using irony and good humor to make a very serious point.

"Terrific," I tell Bob, "We have to get people thinking about things like this. It arms them against the right." He agrees, and works 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.

Sweeny's arrival is low-key. He's escorted in by 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 stands to the side with a beaming smile as Sweeny greets 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 PA, Western PA is the key to Pennsylvania-and without Pennsylvania, there's no way McCain can win!'

Sweeney closes 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 reps at the base. He stresses the AFL-CIO's core message once again: No more nonsense about privatizing Social Security and putting it into the stock market, 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.

Naturally, Sweeny gets a warm, standing ovation. Everyone is appropriately fired up, puts on 'Steelworkers for Obama' T-Shirts and like, and hits the streets in the nearby mill towns, as well as 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 unions and 'Change to Win' unions like SEIU, are making a common front, working together on this election. On this weekend alone, over 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 the Obama volunteer young people put it, although they've done some pretty awesome things themselves more than once.

The sun starts breaking through the clouds at mid-afternoon. I get back to the union hall after a stint at the nearby Court House for our weekly Beaver County Peace Links vigil, for over five years running, with our 'Bring the Troops Home Now! banner and 'Honk for Peace!' signs. The union parking lot is filling up, with more than when we started.

The reason? It's 'Steel Blitz for Barack' time. That means a bus is about to arrive carrying Dan Rooney, owner emeritus of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Edmond Nelson, former Steelers star defensive lineman, United Steelworkers (USW) International 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, are 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 to get there.

Inside, Billy George, head of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, is warming up a packed hall, standing room only. George is from the tough McDonald Heights neighborhood of nearby Aliquippa, PA, home of the shut-down 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 yells into the mike, right off the bat. 'UNION TIME!' the room yells back, no prompting needed. The Steelers are going to win their division, he predicts, then the Steelers are going to the Superbowl, and 'who will be the President to greet and open the Superbowl?" 'BARACK OBAMA!' comes back, instantly and loudly.

George turns serious and talks labor history, educating the younger people and getting knowing nods from the older workers. He reminds us of the fierce battles of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee in the 1930s, the violence and the arrests, at the historical marker at the old plant gate in downtown Aliquippa, marking the 1937 Supreme Court decision made in the case of the Aliquippa workers, the decision under FDR that broke the back of reaction, and allowed nationwide union organization to spread and the FDR New Deal to accelerate.

"Social Security came out of this," George explains. "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 ten days. Get this message out to your neighbors, relatives, and everyone else around here that knows better, or ought to."

Next up is Leo Girard, the Canadian-born international president of the United Steelworkers. Even with his north-of-the-border accent, he know the exact language of this group today.

"We've been getting the shaft," he says, "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, Girard asks the workers here to follow a thought experiment with him.

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, Girard goes 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," Girard shouts out. "What does this tell you about it? What does this tell you about the difference between these two men? I listened to rightwing 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?," he asks. "No, take the measure of these two men. Take then 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's not a dry eye in the house, and Rooney takes the mike to add to his admiration of Obama. But the most powerful applause comes for linebacker Edmond Nelson, a huge African American man who dwarfs everyone else on the platform.

"I'm for Barack Obama because I hate this war in Iraq," he shouts out as his opening line. "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.

These lines get the strongest applause of the afternoon.

But Nelson closes 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 over 90 percent blue-collar white workers, but still a group that knows exactly what he means.

As the lines are being organized so the youngsters, and many older people too, can line up to get their Steeler autographs, one of the AFLCIO chiefs gets order in the room. "One last speaker, one of the most important. She's going to tell you what to do."

Up comes Kyra Ricci, a petite twenty-something starkly contrasting when every previous speaker, with a terrific smile, but a "listen up now" sense of command. The Obama youth insurgency is "in the house", too, and she lays out the tasks of the final days, and has her people with their sign-up clipboards stationed so they won't be gotten by without a commitment.

It's 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 antiwar 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,' will also face forces that will not be easily deflected or denied.

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