700 unionists ring bells to knock out Santorum

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Angry steelworkers drive Bush brother into subway closet

PITTSBURGH — Laughter, cheers and applause filled the Steelworkers union headquarters here, Oct. 7, when Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea introduced steelworkers who had forced Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to flee into a subway closet the day before. Bush had ventured into this steel town to try to boost the campaign of Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, whose voting record is 90 percent anti-labor.

“Steelworkers aren’t kidding when they say ‘Pittsburgh is a Santorum-free zone,’” said Shea.

More than 150 local union volunteers savored the story as they finished their coffee, reviewed their suburban maps and assembled their two-person teams to hit the streets, ready to deliver literature and talk to union voters.

The big turnout on a picture-perfect fall day usually filled with football, soccer, errands and harvest festivals said it all: Union members who drive buses, wire buildings, make steel, clean downtown buildings, provide health care and raise families were ready to sacrifice and act to dump the Republicans in November.

A day earlier, steelworkers joined a protest rally outside a Santorum fundraiser at the exclusive Duquesne Club, where Jeb Bush was a speaker. On the sidewalk, Bush inadvertently ran into about 30 steelworkers carrying signs reading, “Honk if you’re sick of Rick” and “Pittsburgh is a Santorum-free zone.” According to local press accounts, Bush threw a kiss at the steelworkers, who chanted, “We don’t want you here.”

Another group of about 75 steelworkers recognized Bush and joined in the chanting, Jon Vandenburgh, a researcher for the union, told the Post Gazette.

Bush slipped onto an escalator going down into a nearby subway station. Steelworkers took the steps and followed. Once inside the station, Bush was trapped. Port Authority police arrived with a canine unit. They “protected” the brother of President Bush by putting him into a utility closet and closing the door. Bush stayed there until the steelworkers and others left. Port Authority Police used tasers on two people but no one was hospitalized.

Pittsburgh police monitored the protest, didn’t intervene and said it was peaceful. No arrests or citations were issued.

Fired up by the steelworkers’ actions, Shea and his grandson, joined by USW Secretary-Treasurer Jim English and state Steelworkers leader John DeFazio, led the Labor Walk volunteers out of the union hall to their cars, heading to door-knocking destinations in suburban communities.

“We want to duplicate this enthusiasm every Saturday and throughout the week,” Shea told the World. “We want to touch all our members, not just in Allegheny County, but in the surrounding counties, 8-12 times — phone, door to door and job site. We are doing it. This is a must-win.” The county labor council represents 164 local unions.

Shea added that about 700 volunteers from unions in both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win federation were out knocking doors together in Allegheny and four surrounding counties.

This reporter teamed up with retired steelworker Tony Slomkowski and headed to suburban Shaler Township. Slomkowski worked 40 years at Allegheny Technologies, formerly Allegheny Ludlum, maker of specialty steel, serving as USW Local 1196 president. Some of the metal in the World Trade Center was made at Allegheny Ludlum.

Door knocking in Western Pennsylvania is not for the faint of heart. Climbing up and down hills to reach houses spread far apart on streets and narrow lanes without sidewalks presents challenges even to the physically fit. Slomkowski, a member of Veterans for Peace and American Legion Post 226, is a tried and true campaigner. There is no one he can’t talk with, listen to and convince.

Knocking on doors in Shaler, talking politics, generated grapevine discussions throughout the area. Later that evening a friend called to say that at the hospital where she works, the steelworkers campaigning in Shaler was the talk of the lunchroom.

“This is what it takes to win,” said Slomkowski. “Turnout, turnout, turnout. We have to take our message directly, one at a time, to voters, our members. People were talking about the Republican ads on health care where Santorum and Hart [Melissa Hart, the incumbent Republican congresswoman in this district] take credit for good health care. The people told me that wasn’t true. It’s a lie. I just added that Santorum led the charge to privatize Social Security and hasn’t given up.”

We finished our lists and returned to Pittsburgh and a late lunch. Over hoagies and pop, volunteers from all the unions traded political experiences and debated the Steelers. The sign-up sheets filled up as union members figured out how to juggle work and family to squeeze a couple of hours through the week to walk or phone.

“We have a long way to go to rebuild our unions after what Reagan and the ’80s did to us,” says Slomkowski. “We are on our way and we are going to do it in November and continue with new activists and leaders.”