Local unions, particularly those tied to fracking and heavy industry, spurned state Rep. Summer Lee this spring, backing Democratic challenger Chris Roland in the June primary. And even after Lee easily won re-election in her Mon Valley district — even after a local union council lined up behind her — some in the labor movement are apparently having a hard time letting go.
Lee’s name is conspicuously absent from a list of candidates endorsed by the state AFL-CIO Wednesday, making her among a very small number of Democrats not to receive the party’s backing.
“There was a robust debate about jobs,” state AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale said about the non-endorsement Wednesday evening. “There’s clearly some conversation that folks need to have.”
Lee is serving her first term and is the first Black female legislator to be elected in Allegheny County. She’s been a strong critic of the environmental cost of heavy industry and fracking for natural gas — costs that can exact a heavy toll on low-income communities in particular.
But Lee surmises that there is more to the story than some industrial and building trades unions — whose members work in those industries — trying to halt her agenda. She notes the AFL-CIO backed candidates like state Rep. Sara Innamorato, who also has been wary of fracking.
“From my perspective, it’s not about my environmental stance or about steel, because I’m not opposed to steel, I’m opposed to pollution,” Lee said. “If I had to guess, it’s about the fact that I challenge the direction of the labor movement, and I challenge them to be inclusive.”
“What I won’t stop calling out is that fracking isn’t the only industry we have in this state,” Lee said. “The labor of the past can’t be the labor of the future. We’re in a global pandemic that has a devastating impact on the Black community – not just in terms of health but of the economic crisis too. And Black and brown workers are the ones in the jobs where you have to show up, the ones that have been sustaining the economy. And they’ve been doing it without protective equipment. Is labor not thinking about them? Those workers matter to me.”
Bloomingdale denied that race was a factor in the endorsement decisions, noting that the AFL-CIO backed a number of Black Democrats, including three from Allegheny County: State Reps. Austin Davis, Ed Gainey, and Jake Wheatley. “It was issue-based,” he said.
Lee is not facing a Republican challenger in November, and that’s just one reason the non-endorsement is unlikely to damage her. Unions, starting with the Allegheny Fayette Central Labor Council, backed Roland in June, but she still won by a whopping three-to-one margin.
After that win, the local labor council recommended that the state AFL-CIO endorse her. Lee calls that “a tremendous first step, and it’s due to the leadership of Darrin Kelly,” who leads the local AFL-CIO chapter. “He’s been willing to have those difficult conversations, and there are so many people in labor who are stepping up and doing the work.”
But the state organization ignored the local council’s recommendation — a move Bloomingdale called “unusual, but not unheard of. There’s always going to be one or two” where the local council’s recommendation is ignored.
Still, the snub is conspicuous. The state AFL-CIO today endorsed two other Allegheny County House candidates – Lissa Geiger Shulman and Emily Kinkead – despite endorsing their opponents in the primary. And this past spring, progressives decried the fact that Lee was the lone incumbent legislator to be spurned by the local labor council and the local Democratic committee.
Lee says the non-endorsement’s impact on her would be negligible. “I will always lay it on the line for workers. I love labor, I want to see them prosper. I don’t think we will have a robust society without a successful labor movement. But that means being honest,” and asking questions like “When is labor going to be able to reconcile its relationship with Black workers and Black women especially?”
Connecting with those workers, she said, was the only way the movement can grow – in part because “Fracking is dying industry in a climate that is in crisis. We don’t want to leave a single worker behind. That’s the conversation we should be having, but we can’t do it if every time we try to have that conversation, they say we hate labor, we hate jobs.”