On the Road With Working America

On the Road With Working America

In the depressed former steel towns of western Pennsylvania, disillusionment with all politicians is deep. The AFL-CIO's labor affiliate is trying to change that.


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.”

Nussbaum defended Working America’s political work. “Political leaders will not rebuild the labor movement, but political leaders can take away the right to organize,” she said. She also said Working America will be pressuring members of both parties during the lame-duck session of Congress.

From the beginning, the group has focused on what it calls “working-class moderates,” mostly white voters with low or moderate incomes who don’t belong to unions. Earlier this year, Working America staff canvassed working-class neighborhoods in swing states, engaging voters in extended conversations about their economic concerns. Canvassers asked them to become members and pay a suggested $5 in annual dues. Nationally, Working America says two out of three people they talk to sign up as members; 15 percent of its members pay dues.

That doesn’t make them all progressives. I watched one woman, who’d signed up months earlier because she opposed outsourcing, tell a canvasser that Obama was a Marxist who “wants to bring America down and make it just another country.” But her previous experience with Working America made her willing to have the conversation.

Some of Working America’s 3 million members may not even remember signing up. Others become “member activists,” who gather regularly with an organizer to plan lobbying, get-out-the-vote efforts or issue campaigns. According to Nussbaum, the group has connected some members with union organizing campaigns that were already going on in their workplaces; it has mobilized others to support local union struggles. She said Working America is currently experimenting with pilot programs in four cities to mobilize members in the workplace; those that succeed can be rolled out nationally.

Since Labor Day, canvassers have been going back to the swing-state voters who signed up earlier, and to other likely undecided voters, to talk about the elections. Nussbaum says Working America plans to contact a million voters by election day, and that those voters will talk to a million more. In conversations across the country, “many are disappointed in Obama,” she says. “But they don’t like Romney. Some are discouraged about voting at all.”

In a season inundated with campaign efforts, Working America staff say a few advantages set theirs apart: their work happens on your doorstep, not your TV screen; they’re independent of parties and candidates; and they establish a year-round presence in communities. Self-identified conservatives open the door because they’ve signed up as members. Working America steers clear of foreign policy and “social issues” like reproductive rights. That last one can be awkward. As one woman flatly stated at a meeting of member activists, “Controlling your body is an economic issue as well.” But abortion is an issue canvassers are trained not to engage in, instead emphasizing the primacy of topics like jobs. In this election, in this region, that isn’t a hard sell.

Georgeanne Koehler, a retired healthcare worker and former Republican, is one of Working America’s thirty member activists in western Pennsylvania. As a child, she told me, she complained to her mother when the wind carried the smell of the steel mills to their house. “She’d say, ‘That smell is people working. So be thankful…praise God for it.’” Now, it’s gone.

In 2003, Koehler’s brother lost his job and his health insurance when the electronics company where he worked shut down. “We called every insurance company,” said Koehler, but none would insure him because of his heart condition. The last time her brother saw a doctor, he was told he needed to have his defibrillator replaced. He got a new job, without insurance, delivering pizzas. While working for the pizza place, Koehler’s brother received a card in the mail for state-provided health insurance. “He was so excited, and he said, ‘Look! I can make all my doctors’ appointments,’” Koehler remembered. “But then they sent him a letter the very next day saying the card was a mistake…. He made too much money.” She said a state employee suggested that her brother get his boss to fire him, and she urged him to do it as well. But he wouldn’t do it, “because that would be gaming the system…. I said to him, ‘Well, you know big business games the system all the time, and no one seems to have a guilty conscience about it.’” In 2009, shortly before his fifty-eighth birthday, Koehler’s brother died of cardiac arrest after his defibrillator gave out.

After that, Koehler threw herself into activism to support healthcare reform. But when she attended meetings of liberal organizations, she often found that “unless you’re a particular kind of person—like well-dressed, well-educated—you’re sort of ignored.” Since joining Working America, she said, “I’ve always felt that I belonged.” Koehler called November’s election the most important in her lifetime. But she’s channeling her efforts into Working America, not Obama for America. “I think Working America is family,” she said. “And campaigns, on the whole, are pretty much business.”

* * *

On my first night with John Tillar III, Working America’s field director in western Pennsylvania, he had to stop canvassing to take a call from Charles Anderson, a middle-aged African-American canvasser who had been stopped by the local police. According to Anderson, he was told he couldn’t canvass because he wasn’t carrying ID. Tillar called the police station; he said the officer told him he was just doing “good policing” in response to multiple phone calls complaining about Anderson. When I talked to Anderson later, he said he didn’t “want to jump to the conclusion” that race played a role, though he “couldn’t rule it out.” After a pause, he added, “People are going to do what they’re going to do.”

Tillar, the first black student-body president of his overwhelmingly white high school, told me that racism remains an obstacle in his work—occasionally overt, more often a matter of “context clues.” Redmond of United Steelworkers said the decline in unionization outside Pittsburgh hurt race relations as well, removing common struggles and institutions that had encouraged interracial solidarity. Before, he said, people at least had cause to say, “I hate the boss more than I hate you.”

Western Pennsylvania includes several of the handful of counties in the nation that supported both John Kerry for president in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. Two elected officials offered me an innocuous explanation: Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is the widow of a former Pennsylvania senator. But most locals said the difference was race. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Harvard researcher, found evidence to back them up. He compared the Kerry-Obama vote differential in various regions of the country with the frequency of Google searches using the word “nigger.” “On the scale of social science,” Stephens-Davidowitz told me, “this was a very, very strong correlation.” In Monaca, I watched a middle-aged white man pre-emptively yell at Tillar, “I’m not prejudiced—I just have an issue with this president!” As we walked away, the man shouted at him, “This is your work, right? You’re not working!”

In canvassing conversations, the personal was political. Voters cited the jobs they’d lost, or couldn’t find, as a mark against the president. When they criticized Obamacare, it was less for any policy details than for the sense that the president had prioritized a pet project over the crisis of joblessness. When they defended Obama, it was by acknowledging how big a mess he’d started with. But several said four years should have been enough for change.

The strongest case against Romney—the one that had already disqualified him for several people Working America visited—was Bain Capital. Voters described the anti-Bain TV ads as though recounting a conversation with a friend: the man who had to build the stage on which an executive announced the plant was shutting down; the man whose wife died after they lost health insurance when his job went overseas. “It’s not that they like” Obama, said Redmond. “But they hate Romney more, because of what he stands for.” A different Republican, he speculated, “would really give this president a run for his money.”

In an August national survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 53 percent of white nonsalaried workers without four-year degrees agreed with the statement that “corporations moving American jobs overseas” were “very responsible for America’s current economic problems.” Only 44 percent had a favorable view of Obama, and only 45 percent had a favorable view of Romney.

Redmond ticked off Obama’s missed opportunities: he should have had a larger stimulus, an industrial policy, and an economic team less “tilted toward Wall Street and the banks.” And Obama missed “really, really taking a stand on trade.” He said the president “hasn’t done a bad job,” but “he pays a price every time somebody’s plant is shut down.” Sometimes voters’ complaints about outsourcing were tinged with nationalism, like Mayor Kepics’s lament: “Who’s making out on this? It’s Mexicans.” More often they were framed in terms of fairness: Mitt Romney made a profit, said several voters, by taking people’s jobs away.

“People are working off of personal experience, and on the negative talking points that they get from the national media,” said Nussbaum. “So where we come in is to try to go from that personal experience and take people to a different place.”

Working America’s canvassers aren’t the only ones coming up against disaffection—though not everyone is as dogged about overcoming it. I watched its canvassers get even solidly Republican voters to engage with them because of the overwhelming appeal of their anti-outsourcing message and their eagerness to listen. Seeking support for Democratic Congressman Mark Critz, canvassers touted his co-sponsorship of the Bring Jobs Home Act, which would eliminate tax breaks for outsourcing. Across the spectrum, people nodded in agreement.

These canvassers were also modest in their defense of Obama. They often noted that they too had hoped to see more change. Todd Foose, a Working America field manager, told voters that he saw Obama as the lesser of two evils. You won’t find that in any canvassing script. But it resonated.

In Monaca, a retiree told Tillar, “The only thing is, you don’t know who the heck is going to bring this country back to where it was before.” His wife said she could never vote for Obama because of his stance on abortion and gay marriage. But minutes later, she said she “could overlook all of that if he’d bring our jobs back.” His voice rising, her husband added that he wished he could take back his vote for Tom Corbett, one of the Republican swing-state governors swept into office during the red wave of 2010. As the relative of a teacher, he was angry over Corbett’s cuts to education—a common lament in this part of the state. But the lesson he took from this wasn’t a partisan one; it was simply that you can never count on politicians to deliver what you want.

Over the course of twenty minutes, Tillar moved them both—by talking more about Romney than Obama. Tillar compared Corbett to Romney: both of them, he pointed out, had promised to “cut, cut, cut” and lower taxes without increasing the deficit. When Corbett followed through, that meant slashing education; wouldn’t Romney do the same? They agreed.

“That was really moving,” Tillar told me as we walked away. “That conversation is the highlight of my night.” It’s the conversation Working America is counting on.

Also on the labor front, our blogger Bryce Covert explains “Why We Should All Care About the Walmart Strikers.”

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