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Labor unions continue political influence even as ranks shrink

| Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, 10:30 a.m.
Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president, marches with union members in the 2015 Labor Day Parade in Pittsburgh. Biden plans to return Monday to participate in the 2018 parade.
Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president, marches with union members in the 2015 Labor Day Parade in Pittsburgh. Biden plans to return Monday to participate in the 2018 parade.

Organized labor may be down — from about 900,000 AFL-CIO members in Pennsylvania in 2011 to 700,000 today — but don’t count those union members out.

Events of the holiday weekend — one of the nation’s largest Labor Day parades in Pittsburgh and the two-day Labor United Celebration in Northmoreland Park that attracts tens of thousands of people annually — illustrate the continuing influence of organized labor at the traditional start of the fall political campaign season.

“Things have changed, but labor is still an important factor. They have a certain constituency when it comes to elections,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College.

In the new 14 th Congressional District that includes Greene, Fayette and Washington counties as well as about half of Westmoreland County, Republicans and Democrats planned to spend the weekend and holiday vying for union votes.

Democrat Bibiana Boerio, 64, of Unity, a retired Ford Motor Co. executive and onetime chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, often speaks of her late father and how she grew up as one of five children in a UAW household where she learned to respect the fights union members took on for decent wages, health care and pensions.

A campaign spokeswoman said Boerio planned to attend the Labor United event, march in the Pittsburgh parade with the Pennsylvania State Education Association and meet with union officials in Greene and Washington counties.

Not to be outdone, her Republican opponent, state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, 35, of Jefferson Hills, planned to hit both the labor festival and the parade. Campaign spokeswoman Mallory Hodge said the state lawmaker has picked up endorsements from three building trades unions and hopes to score more.

Jerry Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh, questioned just how effective union support can be when organized labor represents an ever-shrinking slice of the American electorate. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership declined from 20.1 percent of the workforce in 1983 to 11.1 percent in 2015.

“I think the vast majority of union members today are members because they are required to be because of the place they work,” Shuster said. “The unions don’t have the appeal or the hold the influence that they once did over their members. The influence has shifted dramatically.”

Union officials counter that their members were a key component of the campaign that helped Democrat and political newcomer Conor Lamb win a special election in a southwestern Pennsylvania district that President Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016.

Lamb, who went to Congress last spring, will be calling on union support again this fall when he faces incumbent Republican Keith Rothfus in the new 17 th District, which includes Beaver County and part of Allegheny County.

Frank Synder, a third-generation steelworker from Beaver County, serves as secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO and director of its Committee on Political Education. He said union members rallied around Lamb, knocked on doors and talked to friends and neighbors in an effort to sway their support for the Democrat.

“No one gave Conor Lamb a chance in the beginning other than the union movement,” Snyder said. “At the end of the day, we were able to get out there with our membership. We had a great candidate, a tireless worker. I think people are still fired up, and they’re going to take that energy into this election.”

Midterm elections will be held Nov. 6. In addition to U.S. Senate and House seats, offices for Pennsylvania governor and lieutenant governor are up for grabs.

Unions will focus on pocketbook issues and remind members that their rights are on the line in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Janus case this summer held that government workers — who make up nearly half of the nation’s union households — cannot be forced to pay union dues, Snyder said.

Some predicted the court ruling would render a fatal blow to the influence of large public service unions.

But Snyder said the unions were prepared and had mounted an aggressive education campaign to make members aware of the impact an increasingly conservative Supreme Court could have on them and why they needed to exercise their political clout.

“We’re not big enough to win elections alone,” Snyder said, “but we’re big enough to make a difference.”

Madonna agreed.

“They’ve always had their greatest strength and success when it comes to sticking to the economic message for jobs, for health care, working conditions,” he said. “There’s no doubt when unions do that, they can make a difference.”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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