On the Road With Working America
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.