Healthcare Solidarity And A Trip To The Picket Line
By Tina Shannon | PDA PA Steel Valley Chapter President
As you drive north into Farrell, PA, you pass a bunch of steel processing plants, but the buildings are only medium sized, not the giant buildings a lot of people associate with the words steel mill. The buildings are not old monolithic-looking, weathered, and soot-stained tributes to our past. These buildings look like they belong in small industrial parks. These are buildings where people work today.
I had forgotten how much steel processing and metal stamping and finishing work happens here, about an hour from my home in Beaver County. My County used to supply the steel that the people here finish. Now that steel comes from other countries.
I was on my way to the Union Hall of Steelworkers’ Local 1016 on Martin Luther King Blvd. in Farrell, PA.
After I drove past the places where my neighbors up here work, the road narrowed. The industrial park vibe lasted only a minute on my drive into town. Farrell quickly asserted itself as a familiar small working-class town.
We were delivering donations, carrying them in a Solidarity Caravan to striking workers in a pandemic. We had seven cars. Our windows were painted with washable marker, with messages of our support for both Unions, the Steelworkers’ current struggle and also Medicare for All. One car was piled high with mostly household goods but a few cans of food as well. We knew it’s what the strikers needed. Bob and Bernie Williams, who I am working with, had asked them.
I had a check for $1279 for their Holiday Fund collected through a nation-wide fund-raising appeal from our national Progressive Democrats of America.
The idea of a fund-raiser to complement the collection we were doing in Beaver County, to reach further than our local contacts, had developed for two reasons.
First of all, it’s hard to collect donations during a pandemic. I knew it would be easier to collect funds. And funds are always needed.
Secondly, my own personal fund-raising reach has grown past my immediate local connections. It seemed to make sense to move to an online fund-raise, it being a concrete way I could help from home.
That’s when the idea really took off. As I talked about it, we realized it would be a great opportunity for PDA and Medicare for All activists to demonstrate their solidarity with the striking workers, since their strike was an effort to defend their healthcare benefits.
Their company, NLMK Steel is paying high tariffs for the steel it’s importing for the Farrell workers to process. As this affects profits, NLMK had made changes. The company is now trying to force all the employees to accept a high deductible healthcare plan. The employees want to keep their current plans. All involved are tired of trying to navigate the extremely complicated US healthcare payment system.
Medicare for All is extremely relevant to the labor struggle now. Just about every strike or contract conflict has healthcare at its root as insurance companies hike premiums. This is an important part of the way forward for the single-payer healthcare movement. This is how we build more solidarity in the fight for Medicare for All. Any fight to preserve access to healthcare is our fight too, until we win healthcare for all.
We pulled into the parking space of USW Local 1016 Union Hall. I had already decided I wasn’t going inside. I had told people I wasn’t going inside. But as I had driven through town, and as I pulled into the parking lot of this building I had never seen before yet was so familiar, I knew I had to go in. It was clear to me that this building was the heart of the workers here, my neighbors, the heart of their struggle to preserve their ability to be able to afford to go the doctor.
So, I put on my N95, covered it with a cloth mask and went inside as my friends and fellow activists from Beaver County carried all the household goods inside. The entrance was narrow, a perfect place to put a sign-in table for events along with someone sitting at the table to sell the obligatory W PA 50/50 tickets, so perfect I could picture it. The Christmas tree was bright. A guy was puttering around in the kitchen/serving area at the far back of the large room. All the items we had carried with us quickly filled the office at the side.
I stepped outside to stay safe as they cleaned up the laundry detergent that hadn’t survived the car ride and had spilled all over the floor.
Someone stuck their head out and said to come on back in because they were ready for the check to be presented.
First though, we had to all stand together to take pictures in front of the Christmas tree. We stood as far apart as possible to be safe but still get in the picture. We joked about how big the Christmas parties were going to be next year when we could all get together safely.
Then I handed the check to Terry Day. I read this letter:
VIA HAND DELIVERY
USW Local 1016-03
107 Broadway Ave.
Wheatland, PA 16161
Attn: James Wells, Jr., President
Dear President Wells,
Enclosed please find a check in the amount of $1,279.00 made payable to NWPA ALF Christmas Project which we are hand delivering to you today with this letter.
The check represents contributions made and collected by the national Progressive Democrats of America and their Pennsylvania Steel Valley Chapter.
PDA supports the efforts of labor unions to maintain and expand hard fought for healthcare benefits until the time when the passage of Medicare for All legislation eliminates the need for union negotiators to bargain with employers for such benefits.
We hope that our donation to the Christmas Project will not only help your striking members and their families, but also serve as a thank you to the NWPA ALF for screening “Off the Table: The Case for H.R. 676 Expanded and Improved Medicare for All” at its 2019 annual meeting.
We will forward a copy of this letter to other organizations that support Medicare for All legislation and encourage them to contact you to learn how they can support your local’s efforts to settle a fair contract. We also stand ready to help to the best of our ability whenever requested.
PDA National Director
PDA PA Steel Valley Chapter President
P.O. Box 150064, Grand Rapids, MI 49515 pdamerica.org facebook.com/pdamerica @pdamerica
Everyone in the room could feel the solidarity. Rosanne Barker from NW PA Area Labor Federation had come to meet us and take the check to deposit in the holiday fund. Terry Day is the local union president. Local 1016 is an amalgamated local, meaning that workers from several plants are members and thus have sub-locals.
The Union representatives were moved that we came to show solidarity in the middle of a pandemic. We were moved to be able to play a small part in helping them in their struggle to win healthcare from the big corporation which is their employer. Everyone in the room carried with them an awareness of the human cost of this struggle. We all know what’s at stake and it showed in our eyes and in our actions.
We said good-bye and got in our cars and drove four blocks or so to the picket line.
There were two guys on the picket line. They stood up in their picket shelter shack. We stood down on the sidewalk. We admired their super-duper, fancy, better designed, more efficient, hotter burn barrel which had been donated by the United Electrical Workers Local 506. They expressed gratitude. We expressed gratitude. We chatted about healthcare and company owners and how hard it was to make a living these days.
I gave them a copy of the letter and told them I wanted them to have it as well their Local President because I’d been raised to pay attention to the rank and file.
We got in our cars and drove home. We all knew this had been a very good day. This was worth coming out in a pandemic for. Keep your eye out for strikes you can help support. That’s what I’m going to be doing. I’ll keep you updated.
Love and solidarity forever.