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Despite Labor Day weather, union leaders and Democrats see brighter future ahead

US Senate candidate John Fetterman and gubernatorial hopeful Josh Shapiro joined to support each other's campaigns at the end of Pittsburgh's 2022 Labor Day parade
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman and gubernatorial hopeful Josh Shapiro join to support each other's campaigns at the end of Pittsburgh's 2022 Labor Day parade

The skies were gray, the weather drizzly for Pittsburgh’s first in-person Labor Day parade since the coronavirus struck in early 2020. But thousands of workers thronged to Downtown Pittsburgh anyway on Monday, marching from PPG Paints Arena to the United Steelworkers international headquarters a mile away. Elected officials and union leaders alike said brighter days were coming.

“Don’t let the rain deter you,” state Rep. Summer Lee, a candidate for Congress, told a rally of nursing home workers represented by SEIU Healthcare before the march. “I know you feel tired. [But] do you all feel that change that’s coming? … We are seeing a dawning of a new day where workers are standing up all over the place. The reason we have a new political environment here in western Pennsylvania is because of you workers right here.”

Union drives have taken root across the country and in industries where such organizing would have been unthought of just a few years ago — in Amazon warehouses and coffee shops in Pittsburgh and across the country. But as Darrin Kelly, the top labor official in southwestern Pennsylvania, told the SEIU rally, while labor was “back on the showcase” with a parade, “it’s the same story” of workers having to fight for their rights.

SEIU members are front and center in that struggle: Hundreds went on strike at more than a dozen nursing homes across the state late last week. One of those employees, Shannon McBride, said workers barely earn enough to live on, and while they work in health care, can not afford health insurance.

“They call us heroes, but we all feel like zeroes,” she said.

The parade itself kicked off shortly after the rally, with workers from every walk of life: from teachers and mineworkers to tree-trimmers and plasterers. Occasional floats demonstrated union locals’ craft, with trailers that featured ironworkers banging on girders to a truck bearing a sleek wooden canoe fashioned by cabinet makers. The procession was led by the first of two bagpipe bands, a banner mourning the death of longtime labor leader Jack Shea the week before, and a group of elected officials.

“Let’s go get it!” called out Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, repeating a favorite motto while walking alongside Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro and his running mate Austin Davis.

U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman, meanwhile, marched well back with a contingent of Steelworkers, with whom he has a particularly close relationship. They could be heard chanting his name from a block away, and they were loud enough to drown out a handful of Republican hecklers camped along Grant Street.

The presence of so many Democrats was no surprise, given the crucial midterms coming this fall. Prior to the march, Shapiro said labor concerns are “an area where you couldn’t have a clearer contrast in the governor’s race.” His Republican rival, Doug Mastriano, he said, “has made clear that he will sign right-to-work legislation into law, which would effectively do away with unions in Pennsylvania. I'll veto that bill. I'll protect the union way of life.”

Right-to-work laws allow workers to avoid paying union dues even while they receive the benefits of a union-negotiated contract. They are broadly popular with Republicans in Harrisburg, and Mastriano has said he would sign one into law.

Mastriano has sought to make inroads with labor by pledging to end the state’s participation in a greenhouse-gas compact that seeks to reduce emissions from fossil fuels. Shapiro has taken a more nuanced approach, saying he will convene interested parties to figure out a more workable alternative from the outset of his administration.

In the meantime, Shapiro noted, he had the backing of unions who “looked at both of our records [and] plans, and they chose to side with me.”

The parade itself lasted roughly two hours, and it reached its peak when Fetterman, whose contingent of Steelworkers was among the last of the groups to reach the reviewing stand, arrived. He did not take questions from reporters — his accessibility to the press has been drastically limited since he suffered a stroke in May — but he welcomed Shapiro as his fellow statewide candidate wove through marchers to greet him.

“Our next governor!” Fetterman shouted.

“The 51st vote!” Shapiro called back.

The parade ended not long after, though Fetterman and others still had to greet the day’s guest of honor: President Joe Biden, who appeared later in the day at a Steelworkers union hall in West Mifflin.

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.