The Electrical Worker online
May 2018

Pennsylvania Labor Ally
Rides Union Wave to Congress
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With enough hard work, nothing is impossible in politics.

Pittsburgh-area union members proved it in March with an improbable special-election victory in a deep-red congressional district, a race that took on national significance with its implications for November's midterms.

IBEW and other union members in Pennsylvania's conservative 18th District forcefully campaigned for Conor Lamb, giving the pro-union Democrat a narrow March 13 win in a House district that Donald Trump carried by 20 points in 2016.

"Side by side with us at each step of the way were the men and women in organized labor," Lamb said in his victory speech. "Organized labor built Western Pennsylvania.... Tonight, they have reasserted their right to have a major part in our future."

Two days before being sworn into Congress in April, Lamb reaffirmed his commitment to workers in a speech to the IBEW's Political-Legislative Affairs Conference. He decried assaults on Social Security and Medicare, calling them "sacred promises" that he would fight to keep. He called prevailing wage laws a "core value" and said any infrastructure bill "must preserve Davis-Bacon, period."

"Labor must fully regain its place in our democracy," Lamb said. "Working people must again be able to organize, to bargain collectively and have their voice heard at every level of government."

Pittsburgh-area Locals 5, 29, 126, 1024 and 1919 helped turn out voters and inspire members to take part in phone banks, labor walks and rallies for Lamb.

While candidates routinely court labor, Lamb's embrace of unions and concern for workers felt genuine, said Kris Anderson, the IBEW's political coordinator in Pennsylvania.

"I was so excited to hear him profess his gratitude toward labor in his speech," Anderson said. "A lot of times we get left at the altar when it comes to the thank-yous."

Local 29 Business Manager Kenn Bradley also was pleased. "It's very important for him not to forget labor," he said. "We were a big reason why he got voted in, and now we have to hold his feet to the fire and make sure he follows through on his promises, which I think he will. I believe he's a man of his word."

The 18th District seat opened up with the resignation of Republican Tim Murphy last fall. Lamb's opponent was Rick Saccone, a brazenly anti-union state representative who sold himself to voters as "Trump before Trump."

Union members were drawn to Lamb's blend of social conservatism with a fierce defense of workers' rights. Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts summed it up colorfully at a get-out-the-vote rally.

"Let me try to explain what kind of folks we are and what kind of Democrat Conor is," Roberts said. "He's a God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending, Social Security-believing, health care-greeting and sending-drug-dealers-to-jail Democrat!"

In other words, Lamb was uniquely suited for his working-class district, experts said.

"This is just the start of it — if we can keep our members energized and if we put more labor candidates on the ballot," said Hank Boldyzar, an elected commissioner in nearby Rostraver Township and business agent for Local 126, which has about 200 members in the Pittsburgh area.

Active in his county's labor council, Boldyzar persuaded the organization to host a meet-and-greet for Lamb that drew about 150 union members and other voters in a region many candidates largely ignore.

"I think he talked to everybody in the room that night," he said. "I had lots of people come up and say they were undecided until they met him."

The morning after the election, Lamb described on MSNBC how he built trust with voters.

"No offense to all my friends who make their living on TV — campaigning in real life in small rooms, door-to-door, person-to-person, it works and I learned a lot doing it, and I think that helped out the campaign an awful lot," he said. "And I would advise anybody, no matter where they are, to do that."

Boldyzar also approached the campaign one voter at a time. Often recognized as a township commissioner, he sported pins for Lamb wherever he went and was ready for naysayers.

"I tell people that the first thing you got to do is vote for your paycheck and you lobby your hobby," he said. "If you don't do that, you're hurting yourself."

He had many conversations like the one with a man who criticized Lamb based on unfounded claims in a campaign ad. Boldyzar told him about Saccone's unwavering anti-worker voting record in the statehouse.

"I said, 'You're going to go by a commercial you saw on TV and not do any research?' He said, 'Hank, you're kind of right.' I said, 'I'm exactly right.'"

Boldyzar hopes Democrats have learned that rejecting pro-union candidates in the past was a mistake.

"A lot of good labor candidates got passed over," he said. "We just showed you what can happen when labor gets up and gets going."


Conor Lamb speaks about workers' rights at a labor rally in Pittsburgh days before winning a U.S. House seat in a deep-red congressional district.