One thing the Mar. 14 special election for City Council District 3 demonstrated, again, is the rift between labor unions and the local grassroots "progressive" movement. Take the Feb. 27 candidates' forum in Oakland organized by the League of Young Voters: The event's biggest applause was bestowed on Republican Neal Andrus -- who criticized frontrunner Jeffrey Koch's labor endorsements.
"We're accused all the time of not inviting enough people in," says Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council. "But we think of ourselves as progressives too, and we want people to talk to us."
In fact, Shea notes that the labor council, an umbrella group for county unions, will hold its endorsements for this year's primary on March 24-25. Candidate interviews will be held at Carpenters District Council Hall, located at 495 Mansfield Ave., in Green Tree.
The process, Shea stresses, is informal: Candidates need only call the council at 412-281-7450 and pick a 15-minute time slot. "Very few of the interviews are contentious," Shea assures. But if you want labor's endorsement, you need to sway two-thirds of its representatives -- and that means taking such worker-friendly positions as supporting an increase in the minimum wage, or opposing job cuts on the city payroll.
Shea makes no apologies for that: "No one thinks of themselves as special-interest. But I'm sure college students would like to lobby officials about tuition costs." In fact, he says, "We've had issues where we've coalesced with college groups on important issues" -- though he acknowledges he "can't remember any right now."
While labor backs Democrats the vast majority of the time, Shea notes that unions have endorsed candidates from other parties as well, even Republicans. "[State Rep.] John Pippy has had our support," he notes.
In Philadelphia, actually, there are rumblings that some unions are seeking to endorse the re-election of Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. Some building-trades unions there are even threatening to split with their AFL-CIO chapter over the endorsement.
Shea says he knows little about the rumors: "I've learned years ago to keep my nose out of other people's business."