Heartland unionists put in long hours

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Standing in a factory parking lot here on a sparkling September day, surrounded by fields of sugar beets, corn and soybeans that stretch as far as the eye can see, a postal worker, an electrician, a payloader operator and a railroad track maintainer divided up lists of union members and got ready for another afternoon of knocking on doors.

Before splitting up to get to work, they swapped a few stories about one guy who’d slammed the door on them last week and all the people who’d told them, “We’ve got to get rid of that son-of-a-b—— Bush.”

It’s a scene that is being repeated daily in towns and cities all across the country as the U.S. labor movement undertakes Labor 2004, an unprecedented worker-to-worker drive to “pink slip” the most anti-labor president in our lifetime, and put John Kerry in the White House.

Dennis Edwards, 36, has worked for 13 years at the post office in Detroit Lakes, a town of about 7,400.

“I work 8 to 4, Monday to Friday — banker’s hours,” he told the World. “I gave it up to work full-time for the AFL-CIO to get out the vote.” Edwards, president of Local 1333 of the American Postal Workers Union, is putting in long hours, nights and weekends, door-knocking and phone-calling “because President Bush is waging a personal attack on unions.”

Citing Bush’s moves to privatize postal operations, Edwards said, “I’m fighting to save my job and for my future.”

Many workers in this rural area are concerned about the “free trade” agreements that Bush is promoting, which hurt the local economy by forcing down farm prices. Edwards also mentioned “the consistent lying from Bush” that is angering everyone from teachers to firefighters. “He stood on the rubble of 9/11 and said ‘I’ll get you more firefighters,’ but he never has.”

Since starting his Labor 2004 duties at the beginning of September, Edwards has been working at it six days a week, door-knocking in towns around western Minnesota. This is the first time he’s done anything like this.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s so positive to see union members coming together to save their jobs, save their lifestyles, save their families.”

Al Pereira is a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees. He suffered a neck injury two years ago after 13 years swinging a sledgehammer for 17 hours a day, pounding anchors that hold railroad ties in place. He is from Hoffman, Minn., a town of 670.

“We need a new president.” Pereira said. “He started a war he never should have, killing our kids.” Pereira has three of his own — two sons, 16 and 19, and a daughter, 23.

“They’re not going to go fight some politician’s bull crap,” he said. “You aren’t killing my kids over politics.”

Tony St. Michel is an electrician at American Crystal Sugar here, and education officer of Local 266 of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union. He grew up in the tiny town of Halstad, Minn., where his high school class numbered 12. “I was in the top 12,” he said with a grin.

St. Michel has worked at the sugar plant for 30 years. Now he’s giving up a good chunk of his free time to get Bush out of office.

“Union-busting seems to be Bush’s ultimate goal,” St. Michel said. Aside from “the occasional guy that slams the door,” the union door-knocking is getting a really good response, he said. “Union members appreciate that we’re out there.”

“The labor movement is getting back to basics,” said Mark Froemke, who drives a payloader at American Crystal Sugar in East Grand Forks, Minn. He is also western region president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

These days Froemke is the full-time Labor 2004 zone coordinator for all of western Minnesota. He spends hours on the phone each night organizing teams of union members. The trunk of his car is filled with flyers from the Minnesota AFL-CIO highlighting the contrasts between Kerry and Bush, and a big carton overflowing with packets of computer printouts. Each packet contains a list of 25-50 union members and union household members in one neighborhood, with detailed street maps and worksheets. Next to each name, there are spaces to record the issues each person feels is most important in the elections, and whether the person favors Bush, Kerry, Nader or is undecided. All the answers are noted for follow-up. Each household gets the union flyer.

Walking up a driveway in a tidy working-class neighborhood, Froemke spoke with a gray-haired man wearing a Teamsters cap, who was watering his tomato plants.

“I could never vote for Bush,” the Teamster retiree said.

At another house, when St. Michel asked a woman if she had decided her presidential choice, she replied, “It sure won’t be Bush.”

As the sun settled behind the nearby Red River, Froemke and St. Michel had talked to about 25 union households. A few had said they were still undecided, one or two didn’t want to talk. Not one had said they were backing Bush.

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org.click here for Spanish text



Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.