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In Pittsburgh Visit, Sanders Picks Up First National Labor Endorsement

Bernie Sanders spoke to the United Electrical workers, who gave them their support, in Pittsburgh Monday morning

Bernie Sanders received an enthusiastic welcome – and his first endorsement by a national labor group – from the United Electrical workers union in Pittsburgh Monday.

Delegates to the national convention gave Sanders their backing just after he completed a roughly 45-minute long speech, urging the audience that “We are in a struggle for the future of this country. It is a fight that we cannot and will not lose.”

“I’m confident that with you at my side, we’re going to win that struggle,” Sanders said moments after a voice vote formally gave him the support of the 35,000 members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

In a statement, UE general president Peter Knowlton said, “Bernie understands the need for workers to have a democratic, independent union movement that is unafraid to challenge Corporate America's stranglehold on our economy."

It was the second major union endorsement to be announced in Pittsburgh, after the International Association of Firefightersannounced its support for Joe Biden during his campaign kickoff here in April.

Today’s endorsement came as little surprise: Sanders received the UE’s support in 2016, and he has been closely allied with the union – one of the country’s most progressive – ever since.

Earlier this year, Sanders promoted the cause of UE members at the former General Electric locomotive plant in Erie, the site of a contract dispute after locally based Wabtec acquired the facility.

Sanders began his speech by hailing the union’s “historic and successful strike” there, which came after a nine-day work stoppage by 1,700 workers. And he portrayed the fight as symbolic of his campaign’s broader cause.

Sanders blasted Wabtec for seeking mandatory overtime and other concessions from workers, “All the while it gave $120 million in bonuses to the executives at Wabtec and GE. That is what’s going on all over America. The war against working people: concession, concession, concession, and huge bonuses for the CEOs. And you said 'No.' You stood up and you fought back.”

Such corporate greed, Sanders said, “is an illness, it is an addiction. And if the corporate CEOs don’t get the treatment that they need, we will provide the treatment for them.”

Most of Sanders remarks were familiar from his stump speech – a strident denunciation of growing wealth disparities supplemented by calls for environmental protections, expanded access to health care, and reproductive rights. He also noted an initiative – first unveiled last week – to double union membership nationwide. The proposal includes a number of reforms, including an end to “right to work” laws which allow employees to enjoy the benefit of union-negotiated contracts without joining the union.

“We will never allow a company like Wabtec to abrogate a union contract during a merger or hostile takeover,” Sanders pledged. And companies that engaged in such tactics, he warned, could lose access to lucrative government contracts. “If they think that they are going to all of that and then get in line for a federal contract, they got another thing coming.”

With electability a top concern among Democrats looking at a wide field of contenders, Sanders also made the case that he could beat Donald Trump, who he called “the most dangerous president in the history of this country.”

“We will defeat Trump and defeat him badly because we will expose him for the fraud and pathological liar that he is,” said Sanders. While Trump had promised to be on the side of workers, Sanders said, the 2017 Republican tax bill had overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy.

“Trump said he would stand up to Wall Street and drain the swamp,” Sanders said. “Well, turns out that Trump has brought more billionaires and Wall Street executives into his administration than any other president in history.”

And Sanders urged followers to stick with their convictions, and with him.

“The establishment fights us every single day in many, many ways,” he said. “The most insidious way is when they belittle our possibilities for the future.”

The UE’s national convention continues through Aug. 29. Sanders himself will speak in Morgantown this evening.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.