PITTSBURGH- President Barack Obama’s dramatic re-framing of the national debate on health care this week has electrified labor leaders, progressive activists, union journalists and others pouring into the Steel City this week in advance of the AFL-CIO convention that opens here Sept. 10 and a meeting of leaders of the G-20 nations that will convene a week later.

If ever there was a movement that knows how to combine talk with action it is clear here that the labor movement is that movement. Only minutes after a bitter right-wing Republican representative from South Carolina jumped up in the House chamber to insult the president by calling him a liar union people watching the speech here from their hotel rooms were on the phones with folks back home urging everyone they could reach to tie up the Congressman’s lines, demanding that he apologize.

A delegate from the Washington state central labor council described for Peoples World reporters how she warned the person she spoke with in the congressman’s South Carolina office that the calls would come “day and night until he apologizes.”

“This is a strong union city,” said Jack Shea, secretary-treasurer of the Allegheny County Central Labor Council, which represents 100,000 workers in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. “Even so the right wing is out and about here. You can’t be timid with them. We’ve been getting on radio with them and fighting them tooth and nail.

“You have to know the issues because if you know the issue you can beat them. Their opening line sounds great to a lot of people but if they have to defend their position even once they cool off and by the third time they sound lost.”

He described how he found himself arguing about education with the right-wing chairperson of a school board who tried to bait both the Obama administration and the Allegheny CLC as being in favor of socialism. “I insisted that he tell his listeners about his qualifications as an educator,”
Shea said, “and it turned out he had to admit he had no such qualifications – absolutely none. You can’t be afraid to challenge these people,” said Shea, “because many of them are just plain nuts.”

“Often it’s just that you need to set the record straight so people who hear them won’t get confused,” Shea added.

He used as an example how he deals with some on the right put forward the notion that less industry and wealthier people are turning Pittsburgh into a “Renaissance City.”

“The real reason Pittsburgh is a so-called Renaissance City is because, unlike some other places, it still has a strong labor movement that has been able to hold onto a manufacturing base. We didn’t let them take it all away. It’s up to us to get the truth out there so people can see that it is the right wingers who don’t really know what they are talking about,” Shea said.

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steel Workers, the largest industrial union in North America, has his office downtown. He returned Thursday after sitting in the gallery of the House Chamber during the president’s speech the night before.

“It was the greatest speech of the past 10 years,” Gerard said.

Pleased with the quick action by many in the labor movement and others who demanded an apology, Gerard said that when he heard the right-wing outburst he was “disgusted that anyone could be that ignorant and uninformed. “We need to make sure that he is sanctioned and if not the message to the Republican Party from the people must be clear – we hold all of you responsible.”

Gerard said he particularly enjoyed the way the president turned around the argument that there isn’t enough money to pay for health care reform. “He reminded everyone about how the money lost because of the Bush tax cuts for the rich amounts to more than what we need to make health care work.”




John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.