Organized labor is alive and well in Pennsylvania! Despite much of the prevailing gloom about the future of the labor movement in media pundit circles, the hopeful future of organized labor was apparent during a recent visit by this writer to the Lehigh Valley region (Allentown, Bethlehem, Northampton) of eastern Pennsylvania.
Much of the doom and gloom over the future of unions in America comes from the decline in the percentage of American workers represented by unions. Some pundits see the decline as resulting from a lack of energy by the workers seeking to unionize their places of employment and the union leadership. Some of these pundits are intentionally seeking to malign the union movement by spreading corporate disinformation. Others are just poorly informed.
The decline in union numbers really has two mutually related roots. They are changes in laws, government regulations and government enforcement efforts that tilt the union election system heavily in favor of the companies fighting their workers. The second is unfair trade policies. The first issue can easily be corrected by passing the Employee Free Choice Act. The second issue will require extensive efforts to renegotiate or repeal all so-called free trade agreements passed since (and including) NAFTA.My trip to the Lehigh Valley started with the annual Lehigh Valley Central Labor Council dinner in Northampton. Over 315 union activists, political figures and civic leaders attended the event. Among the union locals that were represented include; UFCW Local 1776, USW Local 2599 and 412, IBEW Local 375 and 1600, Laborers Local 1174, AIM Local 917, PSEA, AFSCME District Council 88, and Local 1435, Teamsters Local 773, Berks County Labor Council, Schuylkill County Labor Council, CWA District 13 and Local 13500, IAFF Local 735, SEIU/PSSu Local 668, USW District Council 1, APWU, IUPAT Local 1269, NALC, Allentown Firefighters, ATU and OPEIU 277. Elected officials attending included; Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president Bill George, Keynote speaker and Pennsylvania Representative Joseph Preston 24th District, Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham, Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and State Senator Lisa Boscola. Pennsylvania State Representatives, Jennifer Mann, Bob Freeman, Steve Samuelson and Joe Brennan were in attendance and recognized by all involved. Allentown City Councilman Mike D'Amore, Northampton Mayor Tom Neehock. Northampton and Lehigh County Democratic chairs, Joe Long and Rick Daugherty, Salisbury Township Treasurer Linda Minger , Lehigh County Commissioner Kurt Derr were among the local dignitaries at the CLC event. Northampton County Councilwoman Ann McHale, Northampton County Councilman Charles Dertinger, Northampton County Councilman Lamont Maclure, and Lehigh County Sheriff Ron Rossi were there and recognized from the podium. Mike D’Amore became on of my new political heroes when I learned that he is trying to get the Allentown City Council to pass a resolution supporting the Employee Free Choice Act. I hope his example of political courage is copied by local politicians from coast to coast! Other political figures in attendance included political candidates like Allentown City Council hopefuls Peter Schweyer, Mike Donovan and David Jones. Christine Donohue, candidate for superior court judge, attended. Siobhan "Sam" Bennett candidate for 15th Congressional district was working the crowd. IAFF member Rich Gawlik who is a candidate for Lehigh County Commissioner was well-received. Court of Common Pleas candidates, Michelle Varricchio, Tom Lonardo and Glenn Clark, Superior Court candidate Jim Lynn and Bethlehem City Council hopeful Willie Reynolds were campaigning vigorously during the event. No doubt this writer has unintentionally overlooked some of the notables who should have been mentioned. The large attendance proves that organized labor is not dormant in the Greater Lehigh Valley. The long list of political figures shows that organized labor is politically important in Pennsylvania. At the event, Ron Achey was presented with a lifetime achievement award for community service. Ron serves as the Labor AFL-CIO liaison for the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley. Dale Krasley of UAW Local 677/Mack Trucks was presented with the William Werkheiser Community Services award. It was obvious that he was a favorite of all the local unionists present. Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George gave an excellent, short speech that impressed the audience greatly. It was easy to tell that the crowd was very supportive of President George. George noted that Pennsylvania was having more Worker Memorial Day ceremonies that weekend than every other state in the nation. He was followed by Pennsylvania State Representative Joseph Preston, who drove in from the western part of the state (Pittsburgh area). Joseph Preston gave an amazing speech. He was able to speak from the heart and shared personal experiences as a union worker and son of a union worker in the steel industry. He talked about worker safety and those who had died on the job. Preston spoke eloquently about how financial decisions by large corporations often place profits over the safety and lives of American workers. He spoke against unfair trade practices and unfair tax structures. Preston brought the applauding crowd to their feet! It was a great night that spilled over into a very moving tribute to workers killed on the job in the Greater Lehigh Valley the next afternoon at the Lehigh Valley Workers Memorial. This was another Lehigh Valley Central Labor Council event. The Lehigh Valley Central Labor Council Executive Vice President John Werkheiser and Pete DePietro jointly serve as Chairmen of the Lehigh Valley Workers Memorial Board. Lehigh Valley CLC President Gregg Potter and Recording Secretary John Weiss serve on the board as well. The Workers Memorial Day ceremony was held at the Bethlehem park were the Lehigh Valley Workers Memorial is permanently on display. At the ceremony, Superior Court Judge Jack Panella was the keynote speaker. He gave a passionate and moving speech about his own family. He spoke about his late father who had a heart attack on the job and had great difficultly getting workers compensation. He passed away shortly after getting his first check. This writer cannot even begin to recount the tale like Judge Panella. I was so moved that I immediately called my co-host on Democratic Talk Radio, Al Lawrence. We scheduled an interview with Judge Jack Panella which will soon be available on our website at http://www.DemocraticTalkRadio.com . I would like to see Panella in the US Senate! After the speeches, many of those unionists and political figures present read the names of those who were killed on the job. John Weiss rang a bell after each name was read. He unfortunately rang the bell 784 times this past Sunday for workers who have died on the job in the Lehigh Valley. Each reader placed a flower on the Workers Memorial. It was a sad ceremony. It was a beautiful ceremony. I thought about all those hurting families there and the thousands more across our nation. I thanked God that we have a vibrant union movement fighting to reduce the number of families that have to feel such pain and loss. The union movement is alive and well in Pennsylvania. It is fighting vigorously for a better future for all working Americans!