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Labor unions are trying to take back politics in the Midwest

Monday, September 4th, 2017

On Labor Day — designated a federal holiday in 1894 to honor America’s labor movement — at least eight Democratic candidates will hold rallies in five Midwest cities to tell workers just how far the country has veered from its pro-labor roots.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) has helped turn the state red by decimating public-sector unions. In Iowa, Republicans rolled back an increase in the minimum wage in March. Just last week, Illinois’ Republican governor vetoed a billthat would have raised the minimum wage. And Republican governors in Michigan and Ohio have also pushed for regulations that would cripple workers.

In 2018, each will face challenges from unconventional, labor-aligned candidates inspired to run by President Trump’s election and the decline of pro-worker lawmakers, which has resulted in a political system in the Rust Belt that favors the wealthy over the working class. Each candidate will center their campaigns on their support for a $15 minimum wage, progressive health care, and pro-union policies.

Cathy Glasson, a registered nurse and union leader in Iowa who will officially announce after Labor Day her campaign for governor in 2018, said that before this year, she had never considered running for elected office.

“This wasn’t in my plan, but as a union leader, you take action when you see the problems ahead and you don’t sit back and wait for things to change,” she told ThinkProgress. “That’s why I decided when I saw what happened with the legislature and the rollback of the minimum wage. We had raised the minimum wage in five counties in Iowa and this administration literally took money out of the pockets of Iowans — 85,000 Iowans were affected by the rollback here.”

Like other first-time politicians throwing themselves into 2018, Glasson has been a union member for decades and will prioritize the need for more American workers to join unions and employee associations.

“The number one job of any elected official, particularly the governor, should be to raise wages and improve the standard living for all Iowans,” she said. “The union movement and the Fight for $15 and its allies realize that low pay is not okay.”

Glasson’s campaign will have the backing of her union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). One of the country’s largest labor unions, SEIU and its Fight for $15 arm — a national campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 — will announce Monday a push to elect labor-friendly candidates in 2018 in the Midwest states where unions once held tremendous power. The union will budget roughly $100 million for the 2018 midterm elections — around $30 million more than it spent in 2016 — to flip the once-Democratic states back to blue.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association of Wisconsin who announced he’s considering a run for governor in July, will rally with workers at a hospital. In Cleveland, Ohio, talk show host and former Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer, who is considering a run for governor next year, will join workers at a march. In Des Moines, Iowa, Glasson will also rally at a medical center. In Chicago, Daniel Biss, Chris Kennedy and J.B. Pritzker, three leading 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidates, will rally with SEIU’s president. And in Detroit, Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, another gubernatorial candidate, will also rally at a hospital.

“With the election of Donald Trump, we’re seeing a wave of first-time candidates excited about creating change in each of our states,” Glasson said. “We need to give people something to go to the polls and stand in line and vote for.”

Randy Bryce, a Wisconsin ironworker known as “Iron Stache” who launched a challenge to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in June and saw his campaign video go viral, will also be participating in Labor Day events across Wisconsin. He told ThinkProgress that, other than his son’s birthday, Labor Day is his favorite holiday.

“Especially in Wisconsin, with all the blatant political attacks, it’s great to see people still getting together and the numbers seem to increase every year, instead of what they’re trying to do, which is decrease our membership,” he said. “It’s great seeing more people get angry, frustrated, and want to fight back at the attacks because the government isn’t doing anything to stand up for workers’ rights.”

In Wisconsin in particular, the labor movement has struggled to fight back against the “banana republicans” in office, as Bryce calls them. “The labor movement took everything that we had for granted up until Scott Walker got elected,” he said.

Republicans in Wisconsin have gerrymandered the state so they do not fear losing their seats, Bryce noted, but the union movement is going to latch onto policies that he believes will resonate with voters across party lines, like wages and health care.

“Iowans and Americans in general are just tired of not fixing the problem, and states like Iowa should lead on this,” she said. “We can do that because it’s a reasonable size states, we can figure out how to pay for it, we can put policies in place that can move that agenda.”

Bryce agreed. “It’s the right thing to do but it’s also going to help create jobs,” he said.

SEUI’s campaign will include a voter engagement drive aimed at expanding the turnout on Election Day in 2018. According to the New York Times, the union conducted a pilot project during the 2016 campaign in which it canvassed voters in two largely African-American neighborhoods of Detroit to spread information about which candidates support workers and higher wages.

“Over all, about 62 percent of voters the union talked to during the pilot project cast ballots in the presidential election, versus turnout of about 38 percent of voters who it did not talk to, according to data provided by the union,” the report noted. “Applying the same percentage to all of Detroit’s voters would have produced about 40,000 more total votes in 2016, an amount that would have almost certainly secured the state for [Hillary] Clinton.”

While the need to push out anti-worker Republicans in the Midwest is paramount, many of the labor-aligned Democrats are also running to provide a counter to the Trump administration. As Glasson noted, the administration has been a disaster for working families and has alienated labor more and more as the year progresses. In August, in the wake of the president’s comments about Charlottesville, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka left the president’s manufacturing councilsaying that some White House aides “turned out to be racist.”

Glasson said that because of the administration’s hostility toward labor, its critical to have pro-union individuals get involved in politics.

“Unions have been the only way that workers who drive our economy have a voice in politics,” Glasson said. “By collecting and pooling union members’ money, we are a force to be reckoned with in politics, and so the intentional attack on unions in the state of Iowa and the Midwest and beyond is intentional to silent the voice of everyday workers that need to have a voice in politics.”

Bryce agreed that if unions do not get involved now, the Trump administration could decimate the labor movement to a point of no return.

“You’re seeing a lot of people step up since this past election and see that if we don’t get our stuff together, what little we have left, it’s going to be totally gone.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kira Lerner is a political reporter at ThinkProgress, where she covers a wide range of policy issues with a focus on voting rights and criminal justice reform. Her reporting on campaigns, elections, town halls, and the resistance movement has taken her to a long list of states across the country (but she’s still working on hitting 50). A native of the Washington, D.C. area, she holds a degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Lessons From Essen: What the U.S. Rust Belt Can Learn From Germany

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

ESSEN, GERMANY—Stephan Haas has probably given this spiel hundreds of times, but he still sparkles with enthusiasm and mischievous wit as he tells the tale of the notorious Krupp family, the German magnates who helped make this area the heart of German industry. Speaking English for the benefit of French and Finnish visitors, Haas describes how Friedrich Krupp caused a scandal by reportedly seducing boys in Italy and how his wife Margaret was committed to a “madhouse” when her complaints about her husband became inconvenient. He shows visitors around the imposing Krupp mansion, slyly critiquing the architecture, and explains the company town known as Margarethenhöhe, which houses Krupp managerial workers.

Krupp’s company, now the multinational ThyssenKrupp, is still based in Essen in the Ruhr region in northwestern Germany, where the smokestacks of steel mills, coal-fired power plants and factories still rise above the otherwise lush green fields and hills. But over the past decades, much of the steel and coal industries once located here have closed up, along with the underground coal mines that in the 1950s employed 470,000 and now employ only about 30,000. Of more than 200 underground mines that once supplied 125 million tons of coal a year, only a handful remain open and they are all scheduled for closure by 2018. Because of the offshoring of industry and the import of cheaper coal from Colombia, Poland and South Africa, the Ruhr region now has among the country’s highest levels of unemployment and economic distress. (Though it is still noticeably more prosperous than much of western Europe and the United States; Germany has weathered the economic crisis better than most.)

“It used to be that miners were the underground kings, everyone respected them, this whole region was built by coal,” says Haas. “But now if you say you are a miner, you wouldn’t get the same response you used to. The memory is fading, and the miners are disappearing like dinosaurs.”

(A significant mining industry still remains southwest of the Ruhr region around the town of Duren, near Cologne, but that is the strip-mining of soft, dirty “brown coal” burned in nearby power plants run by the company RWE. Activists and local legislators who oppose the industry note that it employs relatively few people, because the massive strip mines are largely automated, and causes huge amounts of pollution that endanger public health and contribute to climate change.)

Like some former industrial and mining areas in the United States, civic leaders in the Ruhr region have tried to rebrand the area as a mecca for arts, culture and tourism, celebrating the rich industrial history (and now-lower levels of pollution). Their plan got a major boost in 2010 when the European Commission named the area a “European Capital of Culture,” a designation created in 1985 as a means to promote European cohesiveness and boost an area’s tourism and economic vitality. Since then, millions of visitors from the rest of Germany, Europe and beyond have toured new modern art museums and historical sites in towns and cities like Essen, Mulheim, Dortmund and Duisburg. The idea was that the region’s new identity could create tourism-related and other service-economy jobs and attract new high tech and other businesses to locate while maintaining a role for the heavy industry that does still exist. The region has also gained tens of thousands of jobs related to renewable energy, according to regional Green Party elected officials, since solar power installation and manufacturing (and to a lesser degree wind power) has boomed in Germany in the past few years. It helps that the Ruhr region, in part because of its industrial heritage, is home to 20 universities, including top technical institutes.

A massive former mine and coking plant called Zollverein is a prime example of the region’s transformation. Zollverein once consisted of almost 100 miles of underground tunnels and railroads that descended almost a mile deep, where tens of thousands of miners working in often horrifying conditions extracted many millions of tons of coal from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Much of the mine infrastructure and the central coking plant sprawling across the surface of the mine have been preserved. They now appear sculptural and surreal: soaring towers capped with wheels that pulled coal out of the earth; maze-like networks of conveyor belts and rail tracks; shining boilers, cylinders and cooling towers that are beautiful in abstract and geometric ways; even a carnivalesque contraption reminiscent of a Ferris wheel rising above the coking ovens, which were closed in 1993.

The Ruhr Museum, depicting the region’s history from prehistoric times to the present, is housed in the old coal wash house, and events from alternative energy conferences to weddings are held in countless converted conference rooms and reception halls onsite. Another former mining structure houses the highly regarded Red Dot Design Museum, while old coal buildings are also home to smaller art galleries and studios and a revolving schedule of concerts and performances.

Also tapping the Ruhr’s regional heritage is the Bergbau Mining Museum in nearby Bochum, which was founded in 1930 and got a major boost thanks to the Capital of Culture. More than a million people annually peruse a vast and eclectic mix of mining paraphernalia, artifacts and art. The collection, hard to see in a single day, includes hundreds of different miners’ lanterns from over the decades, a plethora of quirky dioramas and several rooms packed with mineral samples from around the world.

The high quality, efficiently run museums and tourism services in the Ruhr region provide an inspiration for U.S. Rust Belt towns trying to stimulate tourism and culture to replace the mining and manufacturing jobs that have disappeared. But the Ruhr region also shows that even a thriving tourism and culture industry provides a relatively small amount of direct employment, with the jobs directly created across a whole region unlikely to ever match the jobs lost at even one mass employer like acoal mine or steel mill. Jobs may be created in restaurants, shops and the like, but most tourists still move through the region in a matter of several days, so the economic ripple effects of popular museums and cultural institutions do not appear to be wide. Various people working in the area said that the European Capital of Culture designation brought a wave of attention and economic stimulus, but didn’t create significant lasting changes in the area’s identity or economics.

And this is all in a place like western Germany where tourists from other relatively well-off countries can regularly and easily travel. Luring visitors to a remote former mining village in Colorado or a notorious post-industrial city like Gary, Indiana, is an entirely different story.

A more realistic replacement for the lost jobs might revolve around clean energy. The German Green Party claims that in little more than a decade renewable energy has created 380,000 jobs, thanks to government policies like the feed-in tariff that promotes it. A significant portion of these jobs are located in the Ruhr region. For former U.S. industrial areas that still have infrastructure and skilled workers, such green jobs could be a better bet than tourism and culture in terms of employment, although, as in the Ruhr region, the two approaches can complement each other.

But the well-being of a region or a city has to do with more than its employment statistics and economic indicators. Pride in place and history and the cultural, artistic and social resources that are available to local residents and draw visitors surely have benefits beyond the economic bottom-line. The Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago had tried to turn a former coking plant on the city’s far south side into a museum before the structure was ultimately demolished. The group had failed to get the adequate funds or political and institutional support for their project. Wandering the grounds of Zollverein, I couldn’t help but think of the shame that a similar (if smaller scale) opportunity in an economically struggling community in Chicago was squandered. But countless opportunities still exist; hopefully U.S. leaders and regular residents can take inspiration from places like Zollverein to create monuments that provide some economic stimulation and pay tribute to U.S. workers and industries of years past.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

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