We Need to Elect More Leaders From the Labor Movement Into Government

John here. I believe this piece is particularly relevant in the USA where there isn’t the in-built connection between one of the major political parties and the organized labor movement. As Conway notes, “union membership equips workers with the skills they need for public office”, and starting local allows union members to move on to higher offices.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union. Originally published at the Independent Media Institute.

When a group of custodians in York County, South Carolina, learned their bosses planned to sell them out to save a few pennies, they knew exactly who to turn to for help—a fellow worker who’d walked in the very same shoes.

County Councilman William “Bump” Roddey, a longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) and a former custodian himself, assured the county workers that he had their backs. Roddey ultimately helped quash the scheme to contract out the county’s janitorial services, a victory both for the custodians and the taxpayers relying on their quality work.

Electing more union members like Roddey to councils and mayoral posts will help to combat right-wing attacks on workers and hold local government accountable to the ordinary people it’s intended to serve.

“We speak for the American worker,” Roddey, a member of USW Local 1924 who works at New-Indy Containerboard, said of union members. “We speak for the middle class. The agenda is not about us if we are not at the table.”

If the county had privatized cleaning services, any small budgetary savings would have paled next to the pain inflicted on the custodians, Roddey said, noting officials out of touch with working people “don’t too quickly grasp these scenarios.”

“The perspective of the people who sign the front of the paycheck is different from the perspective of the people who sign the back of the paycheck,” said Roddey, whose colleagues on the council include three business owners. “I bring that back-of-the-paycheck perspective to everything I do.”

Attacks on working people aren’t unique to South Carolina.

After the school board in Putnam, Connecticut, contracted out custodial services, for example, workers lost access to their pension system even though they’d been promised no change in benefits.

In recent months, USW-represented school bus drivers in Bay City, Michigan, beat back efforts to contract out their work, while union members in Los Angeles County, California, won their own fight against privatization.

Electing more union members would ensure that local officials instead invest their energies in productive ways, such as building robust, worker-centered economies.

Some forward-thinking local officials have used their authority to pass worker protection laws, to establish agencies for enforcing those safeguards, and to create workers councils to take testimony on job-related issues, noted the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, in a recent report. At Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards, for example, a full-time equivalent staff of 34 enforces 18 worker-centered ordinances, including those requiring paid sick time, employment opportunity, and protections for gig workers.

Local officials have the power to hold corporations accountable when they accept public subsidies with promises of creating dignified, family-sustaining jobs. It’s also the prerogative of mayors and councils to provide resources, like affordable housing, that help level the playing field for struggling workers.

And the advocacy of local officials can buoy workers in difficult times. Roddey and other leaders stepped up to support workers at Giti Tire in Chester County, South Carolina, during a USW organizing drive sparked by low pay, unsafe working conditions, and discrimination.

“I certainly recognize the challenges that workers are facing every day at Giti,” said Roddey, part of a community coalition that signed a letter to corporate management in November 2021 demanding an end to its abusive practices.

Having union members in charge at city hall not only protects jobs but may even help to ensure the survival of the community itself.

Clairton, Pennsylvania, Mayor Richard Lattanzi points out that no one can adequately represent his city without a deep appreciation for the Clairton Coke Works and the Steelworkers who have anchored the community for decades.

And while meeting the daily needs of his constituents, many of them USW members and other union workers, Lattanzi also must defend the coke works against extremists eager to shut it down. “That’s one-third of our tax base, and that’s our identity,” said Lattanzi, a longtime USW member who worked at the Irvin Works in the nearby community of West Mifflin.

Some union members run for local office because their concern for coworkers spills over into the communities they call home.

“Our job as a union and as union leaders is to take care of people, especially working people, and that’s what our communities are made up of,” observed Steve Kramer, president of USW Local 9777 and a member of the Dyer, Indiana, Town Council, calling his step into government service “a natural and easy progression.”

Union membership equips workers with the skills they need for public office. Union members understand the power of solidarity and diversity. They’re accustomed to having a voice and standing up for what’s right.

“What better person to run for elected office than a union member? We’re problem-solvers,” said Kramer, who’s helped to ensure that Dyer buys American-made products, that town-funded projects support good jobs, and that government resources are equitably distributed across the community.

“I wish more union members would step up and do it. I know we have talent out there,” he continued, noting that in addition to elected positions, communities need volunteers to serve on water, library, and many other boards.

An influx of union members into councils and other local posts would also help pave the way to more worker representation at other levels of government. As these local officials move up to higher office, Roddey noted, state legislatures and Congress will become more responsive to the will of the people.

“There’s a path to changing how these bodies operate, and the first step is getting involved locally,” he said.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Alice X

    The inherent problem with US Labor is that each sector is vying for a larger slice of the same Capitalist pie. What is needed is a different pie.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Indeed. Hard to go up against capital, and it would be nice to have an alternative to always playing the game on capitalist terms.

      We have a guy running for council in our town who just moved here recently and from what I can tell, is a lawyer representing business interests. He sits on some prominent state boards which he joined right after moving to the state, which seems odd. Only reason he’s running is because he’s butthurt about a new ordinance that shortens off leash time for dogs on the public beach by one whole hour, an ordinance passed after numerous complaints by beachgoers tired of being jumped on by misbehaving dogs. He’s got a decent campaign going and is in with the chamber of commerce. You’d like to think people like this can’t win, especially after disparaging most of the current council publicly on multiple occasions, but being in with the local business interests is definitely a bog boost.

    2. hunkerdown

      Pies are invariably metaphors for rivalry, scarcity, and personal reward. What is needed is a metaphor other than pie, one that does not invoke possessive individualism or depend on a rivalrous condition in order to morally justify its really needless cost.

      Since valuation is exactly that ongoing process of measuring a part against a whole, a new metaphor implies an end to values and moral comparison altogether, which makes the state and some other kinds of regimes impossible to cohere (which is good, certainly better than living in those ensembles of cognitive errors called class societies). That’s an interesting mind exercise that can really get the cardio pumping, for a variety of reasons depending on one’s own investment.

      1. Alice X

        Pies are invariably metaphors for rivalry, scarcity, and personal reward.

        Not my different pie, which would involve a society of people with altruism and empathy as the fiber of their being, not just for humanity but for all life on earth. Who naturally choose to take from the earth as little as possible. This is the dream I go to sleep with most days. But the more direct metaphor for that is ineffable, because it sounds ridiculous: Paradise!

        So I’ll stick with the great simplification of a different pie. Like Plato in his Republic, every solution I think of has a problem, unless and until human beings evolve.

  2. Michael Ismoe

    You would be hard-pressed to find someone who is in union leadership who hasn’t been there for two decades. The union leadership lives like the capitalist owners and are determined that nothing substantial changes. A ton of these guys were the superdelegates at the 2016 Dem Convention. They went out of their way to endorse Hillary over Bernie in 2016. The workers are on their own.

    1. JBird4049

      Somehow, I am reminded of those official government approved unions I have read about in other countries.

  3. Ed

    Just because you elect a union member to office does not mean there will be an ideological alternative that benefits the workers and the public interest. Yes, we need to push everyday people to run for all offices but nothing will change if they simply are company union types who want to protect you from “environmental extremists” like the USW quoted here. The country needs steel to repair the disastrous state of our infrastructure. The tens of thousands of jobs lost in Clairton and the US steel industry over the past decades had nothing to do with environmental regulations. It simply isn’t profitable for capital to invest in what’s needed by the public. Tens of thousands of steel workers could be employed by repairing schools, water facilities, efficient transportation networks, etc. This won’t happen if the industry is run for profit and the environment is destroyed. What kind of union do workers need today is the more appropriate question. Company union or class struggle?

  4. Pat

    A shop steward for a well known entertainment group I was familiar with was a fierce advocate for her fellow employees. She understood their contract backwards and forwards and she used that knowledge to advance them. At least she did until she was late in her career but early for full retirement. That was when management of the company that employed that group hired her to work for them making sure her former fellow employees got as little as possible including with their contract negotiations.

    Ronald Reagan was once the President of the Screen Actors Guild.

    I’m not saying having union members move onto political office is a bad idea. I am saying that shouldn’t be the only criteria. It is no guarantee that they are still working for union ideals.

  5. Hank Linderman

    I’m running as a Democrat in deep red Kentucky (KY-02) and I get a pretty good response to this:

    “My name is Hank, I’m running for Congress. I’m a damn Democrat, but I’m also a working person, I think we need more working people in government.”

    Very few refuse to talk with me, agreement is verry high, maybe 90+ %.


    1. Pat

      I know I would respond to that. I would talk to you AND I would look into your record and your positions.

      And that is a compliment. There were four people running in the primary for my Congressional district that got struck off my consideration list just from what I consider to be red flags in their bio blurbs.

Comments are closed.