Labor grass roots harvest a bumper crop

PITTSBURGH — “In 2000, I voted my gun. In 2004, I’m voting my job!” read the banner draped across steel beams on one of several Ironworkers floats in this city’s Labor Day parade. Below the banner, picket signs said, “Is your son/daughter working? Or are they dying in Iraq? For what?” and “Bush just took 17 percent of your pension check — had enough?”

As in Pittsburgh, Labor Day week activities across the nation registered a new level of militancy and mobilization tying the critical issues of jobs, health care and pensions to the Nov. 2 elections.

Five hundred miles southwest, in Lexington, Ky., 1,000 coal miners and their families flooded the streets around the federal courthouse on Aug. 31, protesting the decision of bankruptcy Judge William Howard to allow Horizon, the nation’s fourth largest coal company, to void its contract with the United Mineworkers Union and cancel health care benefits to 800 miners and 2,300 retirees, many suffering from black lung disease.

Police arrested 16 miners who blocked the courthouse entrance, including UMWA President Cecil Roberts. Roberts called for massive civil disobedience to reform federal bankruptcy laws, adding that the union is making this a “front burner issue” this election season.

The Pittsburgh parade, the largest Kerry for president rally in Western Pennsylvania to date, drew over 80,000 workers, high school bands and drill teams. On the streets, thousands shouted, “You go girl,” as Teresa Heinz Kerry locked arms with labor leaders and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

Carpenters and Boilermakers; Verizon workers and elevator installers; electricians and sheet metal workers; nurses and laborers hundreds strong, strollers and kids by the hand marched with T-shirts proudly proclaiming their support for the Kerry-Edwards ticket.

Steelworkers, active and retired, who had more people than Labor Day T-shirts, were loud. “Hey, hey, ho, ho George Bush has got to go,” vibrated the windows in the corporate skyscrapers as they roared down Pittsburgh streets.

Gathered around the steelworkers’ street corner rally were Anita Rapele and Anne Painter, hospital workers, members of Service Employees/1199 P from Canonsburg in Western Pennsylvania’s Washington County. They have been on strike for 98 days trying to get a humane contract from the Presbyterian Home. The Home is running scabs.

“Washington County is all working-class people and we are we are catching hell,” said Rapele. “No jobs, schools falling apart, no health care or just a little bit of health care. There’s Kerry bumper stickers all over the place in Washington County. I know because we put ‘em there,” Rapele explains. “We got Kerry signs on our picket lines. We are phoning and doing voter registration. Us little people, we are going to change this country. Take it back.”

On the other side of this battleground state in Philadelphia, Election Commissioner Edgar Howard announced to the Labor Day parade that Philadelphia has now registered over one million voters, the most in the city’s history. Eight hundred thousand are registered as Democrats. A thousand teachers in red shirts led the massive Labor Day parade, highlighting the fact that they and city workers are working under an extension of their old contract, still struggling for a fair settlement.

One battleground state over, 10,000 rallied in Cleveland for Labor Day, while in Cincinnati 15,000 attended the annual labor council picnic. In Michigan, a crowd estimated at 25,000 marched through Detroit’s streets.

In Portland, Ore., workers marched in support of returning veterans who have lost their jobs, while in Seattle working families took to the streets in front of a Manpower temp agency office to highlight the replacement of good-paying manufacturing jobs with temporary and service jobs.

Texas labor leaders, who fanned out across that giant state to attend Labor Day activities, reported high turnouts and great enthusiasm at all events. In the small town of Tyler, in East Texas, 1,500 union supporters ate barbecue and heard Rep. Max Sandlin stress the importance of ending the Bush administration’s devotion to outsourcing jobs overseas.

Record turnouts came on top of the unprecedented mobilization of labor’s ranks in a massive Sept. 2 labor-to-neighbor voter education action, the largest single-day election mobilization in the union movement’s history. Volunteers even turned out in seven locations in Florida, despite the looming threat from Hurricane Frances, the AFL-CIO reported. Despite Bush attacks, “the grass roots movement is not slowing down, it’s expanding, and it recognizes the ballot box,” a Pittsburgh steelworker activist told the World.

As if to prove the point, observers noted that at the Pittsburgh parade’s conclusion, there was not one political sign on the street or in the trash bins; not one sticker, button or flyer. All the political material apparently went home to lawn signs, front windows, neighborhood centers, union halls and senior citizen centers.

The author can be reached at dwinebr696@aol.com. Jim Lane and Roberta Wood contributed to this story.