Business Manager Mike Dunleavy had less than four days’ notice before Kamala Harris, Marty Walsh and an entourage of aides, media and Secret Service swept into Local 5’s headquarters in Pittsburgh the third Monday in June.
The nation’s vice president and labor secretary came to listen and learn at a roundtable featuring Local 5 organizer Bill Garner and counterparts from seven other unions.
Beforehand, they held a flurry of private meetings in the massive facility, including a half hour that Dunleavy and Recording Secretary Mike Varholla were able to spend with Walsh.
“The previous Thursday we got a call from the White House asking if we’d be willing to host them,” Dunleavy said. “Of course we said yes.”
He did so happily, despite knowing full well from past VIP visits that “your whole life gets turned upside down.”
The following days were a whirlwind of vetting and security protocols — even taps on the local’s phone lines — with details dribbled out on a need-to-know basis. Early Monday, June 21, hours before the afternoon event, anyone coming in contact with Harris and Walsh had to be at the hall for a mandatory COVID-19 test.
The roundtable was research for the first-ever White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, led by Harris and Walsh.
President Joe Biden created the task force in April, giving appointed Cabinet members and top advisors six months to report back on ways the federal government can support union growth and collective bargaining.
“There is no issue we can take on that is too small or too big,” Harris said in opening remarks. “If we are going to be strong as an economy, we have to support our workers and make sure they are strong.
In addition to Garner, who introduced Harris and Walsh, panelists included staff and organizers from the Steelworkers, Laborers, Communication Workers, Service Workers, American Federation of Teachers, National Nurses United and Unite HERE.
They rotated through questions and answers about barriers to organizing in different industries, ways to appeal to potential members, reasons workers give for being reluctant to join a union, fears about retaliation, and more.
It was a lot of ground to cover in barely two hours. “It just scratched the surface,” Garner said. “I think in time they’ll go deeper, based on what they heard. They were genuinely seeking information about the concerns of organizers.”
Dunleavy, Varholla and a handful of area political leaders were allowed to observe from a corner of the room. The limited access, apparently to allow panelists to speak freely, resulted in a scarcity of news coverage.
“That was disappointing,” Dunleavy said. “Union members in particular would have been very pleased to hear the vice president and secretary of labor asking about ‘what’s making it hard for you to form a union and what can we do about it?’ They came here with the intent of finding out, and that’s never happened before.”
He and Varholla were thrilled to have the opportunity to talk privately with Walsh prior to the roundtable.
A Boston Laborer who rose to lead the city’s building trades before being elected mayor, Walsh is the first union member to head the Labor Department since the brief tenure of a Machinist in the 1970s.
When Walsh was nominated, IBEW leaders in Boston who know him best described a union brother who never forgot where he came from — “truly one of us.”
That was exactly what Dunleavy and Varholla said they experienced in Pittsburgh.
“He was in our pipe-bending lab eating a box lunch when we walked in,” Dunleavy said. “Down to earth is the perfect way to say it. He speaks our language. He’s very easy to relate to.”
Varholla said it was like “sitting down and having a conversation with a guy on a job site. I can’t express the gratitude I have to have someone in that position who actually comes from labor.”
They talked about Biden’s pro-union agenda, about diversity in the building trades and the positive example that Local 5 has been setting for decades, but mostly they bonded over their shared backgrounds.
“He was a Laborer, so we’d kid each other about different things,” Dunleavy said. “He said he wants to come back when there isn’t all this hoopla and we said we’d love to give him a tour.”
They’re also hoping to host President Biden despite how much more security and press “hoopla” it will involve.
“We’ve had Al Gore, Bill Clinton twice, Hillary twice, Obama, Biden prior to being elected, and now the vice president and labor secretary,” Dunleavy said.
Local 5’s sprawling, modern complex, with its offices, meeting hall and training center under one roof, is well suited for such visits.
Dunleavy even has approved changes to the building and grounds to satisfy Secret Service protocols, such as reversing the swing of certain doors and removing a curb and a tree in order to connect a driveway with a thru street.
Even with all their experience, Dunleavy and Varholla aren’t jaded. They still marvel at how fast and efficiently the White House, Secret Service and multiple federal, state and local agencies come together to plan and secure an event.
“It’s so fluid. That’s what we always laugh about,” Varholla said. “They’ll come up with a timeline, but 99.9 percent of the time it alters. And somehow it goes off seamlessly.”
As it did June 21, a remarkable day in the history of America’s unions, International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said.
“The value of it can’t be overstated. You had the vice president and secretary of labor walk into a union hall — our hall — and sit down with a group of union members for two hours,” he said. “They weren’t campaigning or making a big announcement. They weren’t interested in the media at all.
“Their only agenda was to learn about union organizing from the experts, from the people who live and breathe it. The workers around the table were the VIPs that day.”