The Uncertain Political Future of Western PA
August 19, 2020
In a state House race outside of Pittsburgh, a coalition can be seen that just might be a glimpse at the political future of the region.
Ties between organized labor and Democrats in Western Pennsylvania run deep. This is especially true for the building trades—skilled workers like welders, electricians, iron workers, and carpenters.
Democrats had long won their loyalty by advocating large public projects that created union jobs, and by insisting on prevailing wage laws that guaranteed that employers who used non-union workers would not have an advantage when they submitted bids for contracts.
It would seem obvious, then, that thirty-year legislator Frank Dermody, with a generally pro-union voting record, serving a historically Democratic district, and the leader of the seemingly-permanent Democratic minority in the state House, outnumbered by Republicans by all but four years out of the last twenty-six, could count on organized labor to rally to his cause.
Instead, the building trades unions are leading the fight for Carrie Del Rosso, a local elected official taking on the longtime incumbent.
The reason is simple: as more and more elected Democrats come either from big cities or their suburbs, environmental causes become that much more important to them, and the counter-balance once provided by rural and coal-belt Democratic legislators has largely vanished.
That has produced a Democratic caucus in Harrisburg deeply skeptical about fracking just as the building trades have come to think of it as the Golden Ticket to a future in which their members are never short of work—and while thousands of members work to build an ethane cracking plant in Beaver County, which will turn the waste from natural gas drilling into plastics.
How many votes the labor endorsements will change is unclear: a now-retired business agent for the Laborers’ Union told me that “for years, our guys mostly voted Republican because they talked about the things they cared about while we worked with the Democrats to make sure they had jobs.”
Meanwhile, those with a taste for irony can take note of the fact that Pennsylvania’s network of fiercely anti-labor network of conservative organizations is on the same side as a sizable portion of organized labor in at least one contest.
Whatever the result on November 3 in this obscure corner of Pennsylvania, an interesting question remains: is this blue-collar, pro-union, vaguely populist coalition the future of the Republican party in Pennsylvania?