Beaver County Steelworkers at Labor Parade

Labor Day Biden

Photo: Signs at Pittsburgh Labor Parade

Pittsburgh’s Labor Day:
Showing Our Solidarity,
Organizing New Forces

By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue

If you want to get a good picture of the hard core of the Western Pennsylvania working class and its concerns, one of the best ways to do it is to take part in the annual Labor Day Parade on a gray and rainy Pittsburgh morning.

Pittsburgh is known as a town that takes its Labor Day parades seriously, with turnouts of upwards of 50,000, rivaled only by Detroit and New York City. This year’s Sept 7 event, which featured an appearance by Vice President Joseph Biden, was only a fraction of that, but still numbered in the thousands, with high spirits and an array of contingents.

The main political concerns of the day were passing the Employee Free Choice Act as a spur to unionization, along with health care reform leading to universal coverage. Many of the unions favored HR676 ‘Single Payer’ Medicare for All as the most effective solution. The purpose of it all? “Solidarity and bringing in new members,” said Teamster Carl Paullet, 75, of Ligonier, PA, to a local news reporter.

My day started early. I drove through Beaver County’s hills and hollows at 7AM to get to the United Presbyterian Church in Hopewell Township, outside the town of Aliquippa, in time for the busload of retired steelworkers headed for the city. Marion Prasjner, president of the county chapter of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), was determined to get us all there on time, before any traffic jams. One by one, about twenty cars and pickups filled the lot, and about thirty retirees loaded themselves into the church bus.

“Let me take the roll before we get started,’ said Prasjner, clipboard in hand. He went through a list of names the sound of which told a story in themselves—Serbian, Polish, Italian, German, African-American, Scots-Irish and more, all the various peoples drawn to this area around the turn of the last century and forged into a multinational industrial working class.  “Let’s move out,” Marion concluded, noting that the weather had kept away only three from our group.

The majority of steelworkers left in Aliquippa are retirees, although there are a good number of them. They mostly still live up on the hills in the working-class townships. At one time, Aliquippa had one of the largest concentrations of steelworkers in a single plant in the world, originally known as Jones & Laughlin Steel. Beaver County in 1960 had the highest density of blue-collar workers of any county in the nation. There is still plenty of construction, service, and metal-related workers living there, but the mill towns along the Ohio River are largely empty shells of their former industrial glory.

As we passed through other mill towns like Carnegie, PA, the chatter on the bus was mainly about health care, with SOAR among the hardliners for HR 676, Medicare for All. “What are we going to do about Altmire?” was one grumbled topic, referring to the 4th CD’s Congressman Jason Altmire, who recently joined the rightwing “Blue Dog” caucus. “He was never with us on health care,” was one reply. “But we’ll see what we have to do if he turns on us on the Employee Free Choice Act with the rest of that bunch.” These retired workers are usually well-informed, often very astute and always vote—in brief, they have some independent clout in local politics.

Coming through the Fort Pitt tunnel is always a treat—rolling hills, then a minute or two of darkness, then the entire Pittsburgh skyline and the three rivers dramatically burst out and suddenly fills your vision. I found it awesome as a kid, and still very impressive. Our bus headed for the hillside parking lots just above the downtown ‘Golden Triangle,’ where one large and prominent building has the ‘United Steel Workers’ logo across the top.

We found ourselves in a waiting line, which turned out to be a security checkpoint, due to Joe Biden’s presence in the area. A guard came on board and declared, “We’re going to bring a dog on board. Don’t try to pet him. He’s friendly, but he’s sniffing for explosives and weapons. Just let him do his job.” A nice looking rust-colored German shepherd moved down the aisle and out again. All clear.

Most considered some security measures appropriate because of rising threats against Obama and his team. But the talk turned to the security plans for the next two weeks, where the city is shutting down practically everything for the Sept. 24th G20 confab of world leaders. The plan: the streets will be empty, save for militarized police and protestors. “Now that’s just overkill,” said one worker. “They’re just trying to scare people away and shut us up.” Once we parked, the first order of business was finding coffee, donuts, and the location of the portapotties. No problem all around; everything was well organized.

We were among the early arrivals, so we got to see everyone else pouring in. Unions express their solidarity with a type of team spirit; boxes are opened on the backs of a dozen different pickups, and the various trades and industries are passing out union caps and T-shirts—I get a pair with the SOAR logo, with dark blue as the background. The unions are colored-coded these days—blue for the steelworkers, purple for SEIU’s service employers, red and black for the hotel workers, green for AFSCME’s government workers, chartreuse for the carpenters, and so on.

Most striking was the arrival of the coal miners. Several hundred filed into the lot, all wearing camouflage T-Shirts with a bold UMWA across the chest. They looked like war veterans, too, since life in the mines is not easy.

“I told a few of them to be careful, the recruiters might round them up for Iraq!” said Tom Mosholder, one of the Aliquippa steelworkers on our bus. “Seriously,” he added, “those guys deserve everything they can get. That’s got to be one of the toughest jobs there is.” An African-American USW woman from Wilkinsburg standing next to us agreed. “My grandfather worked in the mines. He told me a story about a Polish miner he knew who never saw daylight. It was dark outside when he went into the mine before dawn, and dark after dusk when he came back out, and he had to mine coal seven days a week.”

“That story reminds me of my favorite union button,” I replied, “the one that says, ‘from the folks that brought you the weekend.” They concurred, but Tom was on a roll: “You know, unions have problems, including ours, and they need fixing. Nothing’s perfect in this world. But when I add up everything we’ve got from the union—better hours, more safety in the mill, and so on, I don’t resent paying my union dues one bit. That’s why even with our mill gone and our local gone, I still turn out for these things.”

Tom’s story helped explain some of the new steelworker banners and contingents that were from manufacturing and services outside of steel proper. “USW Technical Workers” was one that caught my eye, largely because of its youthful composition. It was an antidote to the problem the AFL-CIO was focusing on with its ‘Young Workers: A Lost Decade’ campaign. All the unions are pointing out that the current economic crisis is falling heavily on the least unionized workers, especially the younger generation.

“Some younger guys fall for this ‘up by your own bootstraps’ crap,” said Tom, pointing out some difficulties. “But nobody does it all on their own. Every one of us has had a hand up at some point, from our families, neighbors, schools, everywhere. And it didn’t come easy; we had to join and fight together to get it. Sometimes I think drafting the younger generation into the army wasn’t all that bad, a cure for some of that ‘on mine own’ attitude. But today, with these terrible wars, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Many union members made sure the younger generation was there by making the parade a family affair. There was more than one inter-generational bunch standing together with the same union T-shirt, with a range from white-haired grandparents to a few teenagers with silver rings in their ears and noses.

There were also dozens of high school marching bands lining up. Many observers recognized them from their colors, which matched their athletic teams. People in Western PA take high school football and basketball with seriousness unmatched elsewhere, and know the better teams well. My favorite of the day was the Westinghouse High School band, an all-Black school, which brought some hip-hop rhythms to marching tunes. Westinghouse has had a good share of NBA stars and Pittsburgh Steelers as alumni, as well as famous jazzmen, including Billy Strayhorn and Ahmad Jamal.

Before long a couple parade marshals arrived and let us know where to line up. “I need two more people to carry this banner,” said Denise Edwards, a USW veteran of the Mon Valley battles against plant shutdowns and a SOAR officer. “How about you and you,” she says, pointing to me as one of the two. So I’m drafted to the front, where I can see the action.

Moving down the Hill went smoothly. Suddenly, a tall and hefty African American guy jumps in front of our banner with a bevy of followers. I immediately recognized him, as did everyone else. It was Franco Harris, the Steelers famed running back from the 1970s who, because of his Italian American mother, is also claimed by the Steelers Italian-American fans, who comprised the colorful ‘Franco’s Italian Army’ in the stands.

“Steelworkers? Can I jump in front of the Steelworkers?”  “Any time, Franco,” I tell him. “Be our guest.” Harris was campaigning for an independent run for mayor by his son, Franco ‘Dok’ Harris, who was making a big push as labor’s candidate. How well the campaign goes remains to be seen, but every ten feet, fans of all nationalities shouted out warm greetings for Franco. ‘Steelerism’ approaches the status of official secular religion in this town.

Things took a negative turn at the bottom of the hill. For an entire block, in both sides, the far right had made a gauntlet of large and offensive billboard posters. On the left side were huge gory pictures of aborted fetuses with Obama named as baby-killer-in-chief. On the right, were grotesque caricatures of Obama, comparing him to Hitler and Mussolini. Somewhere between 50 and 100 right wingers stood with the signs, shouting out slogans against health care reform of any sort—but making up only a tiny minority of those present.

One worker from our bus made a point of thumbing his nose at this crew. “I know we’re not supposed to provoke these creeps,” he said, ‘but I just gotta let them know I think they stink. They’re disgusting.”

But we passed into the downtown area with tall buildings without incident. Here the chants picked up for ‘Health Care’ and ‘Free Choice’, echoing off the walls. Bystanders cheered and waved. Franco plunged into the sidewalk crowd and worked it like a political pro, clearly enjoying himself.

The Steelworkers building was right after the reviewing stand, so our contingent didn’t make the last two blocks to the dispersal area in the park. The union had promised hot dogs, pasta salad, and beer or pop, and the walk had worked up our appetites. It was a decent spread, and hundreds of us moved through the lines quickly, getting to the seating at tables in the outer lobby. Despite the weather, everyone thought it was a good turnout and well worth the effort.

On the bus back to Beaver County, the same political discussions continued. How are we going to get more manufacturing jobs? Can we ever get HR 676? What do we have to do to get some politicians who will represent us and not the corporations that buy them off? No one had all the answers, but the rainy day had been an open-air classroom, and everyone’s class consciousness was more fine tuned and focused, and ready for the next round of tasks in the months ahead.

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