An abandoned steel blast furnace is seen in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania April 8, 2011. Reuters/Eric Thayer
One September night in the western Pennsylvania borough of Monaca, a disillusioned resident told a labor canvasser that he’d once “backed all of the Democrats all the way through,” only to realize “both sides” were “really full of shit.” Then he said something I heard often during my week in the region: “If all these factories were still running here, we’d all still have jobs.”
In the mostly white, once unionized, postindustrial towns around Pittsburgh, outsourcing casts a long shadow over undecided or uninspired voters. As Working America, an AFL-CIO affiliate for nonunion employees, tries to mobilize working-class voters for the election and beyond, offshored jobs are the ever-present context. They underlie the strongest indictments of both presidential candidates, and they’ve shaped something else: a sense that the past outstrips the future. People in this depressed region feel there’s a disconnect between the debates in Washington, DC, and the steady decline in Washington, Pennsylvania. “I’m not voting anymore,” one woman told a canvasser. “I’m done.” Her husband added, “Get the fuck off my porch.”
The Bain legacy of offshoring is costing Mitt Romney the support of voters who have been primed against President Obama. Outsourcing also presents a hindrance to Working America, the labor movement’s largest effort to engage nonunion employees outside the workplace. Like Obama’s canvassers, those for Working America tout the president’s accomplishments and assess public support for him. But they also probe grievances, swap stories and promote engagement. Working America wants to be a voice for these voters’ frustration, a challenge to their cynicism and an avenue for their mobilization. In the former steel towns of western Pennsylvania, where many have soured not just on this president but on all politics, Working America is trying to do something unions once did: bind working-class voters to progressive populism and to each other.
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Pennsylvania has lost 41 percent of its manufacturing jobs over the past twenty-two years, a figure that indicates—but can’t do justice to—the impact on the hardest-hit regions. Among Obama’s unenthusiastic supporters is Bob Kepics, the mayor of Monongahela, who was laid off by US Steel in 1981. “I fought my way back twenty years later to get back in that mill,” said Kepics. After retraining as an electrician, he became one of 900 workers in a building that used to hold 4,500.
Sitting in his office, Kepics slammed Obama from the left on trade and stimulus, and from the right on coal and welfare. His grievances shared a common theme: if only Obama had visited the region more and spent more time listening to the people who live there, he would have done more to get Americans back to work.
Seventy miles north of Monongahela is Aliquippa, whose population has shrunk by more than half since 1970. At a diner there, I met a 19-year-old who chairs the mayor’s youth committee. Before the mills shut down, he told me, “they say our downtown was so busy that it would take you two hours to get from one end to the other.” Today? “If you get caught at a red light, maybe two minutes.”
* * *
Working America was founded nine years ago so that union dues money could be used to communicate with a new group of voters about politics. More broadly, it’s an attempt to pull millions of nonunion workers into the labor movement. United Steelworkers vice president Fred Redmond told me that when Karen Nussbaum first presented the idea to the AFL-CIO’s executive board, “I turned to the person next to me and said, ‘Good luck with that shit.’” Today Nussbaum is Working America’s executive director, and Redmond sits on its board. By visiting people at home and talking to them about individual struggles and collective action, said Redmond, “Working America is going back to what we know.”
Can it be a game-changer for a labor movement in crisis? Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, is skeptical. While crediting Working America with “doing important work,” she said that by focusing outside the workplace, “it’s not dealing with the most critical issues that workers are dealing with, and it’s not making change in workers’ lives.” As for politics, said Bronfenbrenner, “we’re not going to get policy change in this country until we have stronger unions.” To accomplish that, she said, “you’ve got to get more workers educated and involved in union issues…. You don’t get them to do that by not talking to them about what unions are.”