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Pittsburgh G20 Diaries: Union Teach-Ins, Ninjas, Stiglitz, Rockers


One of the first things you see entering Pittsburgh from the Fort Pitt Bridge is that the United Steel Workers, headquartered in this working-class town, are determined to deliver a strong message to the G20 bigwigs.

"Jobs, Good Jobs, Greens Jobs Now!’ declared the huge five-story-tall banner draped from the top of the  even taller USW headquarters building that faces the Golden Triangle and its hotels. Despite squads of militarized police, some in their Ninja turtle outfits, no one anywhere near the downtown area can miss it.

Today I’m headed for the day-long ‘Teach-In on Human Rights, Global Justice and the G20′ organized by the USW at their 4th floor conference center. Later in the afternoon on this gray, drizzly and humid Sept 23 day, I plan to hear Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz speak in the low-income Hill District, and attend a labor-environmentalist rally and concert featuring local politicians and rockers.

The street heat protests are planned for the last two days, Thursday and Friday, Sept 24-25. So far, the police have been going out of their way with petty harassment of out-of-town protestors—getting permits mixed up, trying to stop a Free Food bus, challenging small encampments. Some Green Peace people get busted today for hanging a huge banner on one of the bridges, but arrests and scuffles so far are minor.

I arrived early, just in time for the freshly brewed coffee and wide array of muffins and pastries that will load my blood sugar and won’t help my waistline—but who can resist? The TV cameras are there, and the room is filling up with union people and activists from near and far. The press is focused on Richard Trumka, the new president of the AFL-CIO who’s very popular here in Western Pennsylvania. He came from the coal mining area about 40 miles south of the city, where he started as a leader of the United Mine Workers of America.

"I’ve been given the job of ‘framing’ the discussion here today," Trumka began, but warns us he won’t be around for criticism if he doesn’t do a good job. He’s got to take off early and meet with the top labor leaders from the other 20 or so countries here for the G20 event.

Trumka gave us a big picture. "From 1946 to 1976, the productivity of the American worker and our wages rose together and nearly doubled. But from the late 1970s, and especially after Ronald Reagan, things changed. Our productivity continued to rise, but our wages stagnated, and now are declining." He followed with a good definition of neoliberalism, urging us to use and understand the term, and how it produced the cycle of consumer debt and the financial bubbles leading to the recent crash.

The neoliberals of both parties, he continued, have tried to put labor and its allies "in a policy box with six sides"—labor ‘flexibility,’ shareholder value primacy, globalization/ off shoring, ‘personal’ responsibility over all, small government to a fault, and economic ‘stability,’ meaning austerity for us. He explained the hidden trap and fallacy in each one of these.

"We make it, and they take it, that’s what it boils down to on wealth creation," Trumka concluded, noting that it was unacceptable. Labor wasn’t about to be imprisoned in the box defined by neoliberalism, but was going to break out of it. It was clear that the new AFL-CIO chieftain was sharp as a tack, well-versed in political economy, and not about to be easily bamboozled by anyone.

Lisa Jordan of the USW took the podium as Trumka headed for his G20 meetings. "I can’t help but report what I saw driving in here yesterday and today," she said. "A long caravan of paddy wagons, and for what? Just waiting to arrest us and scare other people away. She added that the USW would stand up to it at the rally tonight, and especially at the large ‘People’s March’ on Friday. She urged a large steelworker turnout from the locals. "We want to see a sea of our banners, so bring out our people and every local banner you can get."

Jordon outlined the upcoming speakers and breakout sessions at six different roundtable spots on the floor—topics included labor in Latin America, the corporate agenda, the WTO, anti-sweatshop legislation, race, gender and globalization, and several others.

I picked one on economic development battles in the Pittsburgh region. The town I’m from, Aliquippa in Beaver County, is one of the hardest hit in the area and matches the ‘boarded up communities’ phrase in the session’s description.

Barney Oursler of Pittsburgh United leads us off with an account of Pittsburgh’s contrasting areas of downtown glitter, which extends along the high-tech corridor out to the airport, with the grime of neglected neighbors and depressed river valley mill towns. "What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘development?’ he asks. "Profits, big ones," someone answers." "That’s exactly right," he says, "and more often than not, it’s the elites that benefit, not the rest of us."

The case in point offered several times over the day is the Pittsburgh Penguins demanding $750 million from the city for a new stadium, and getting it. The main opposition came from ‘One Hill," a coalition of mainly African American groups in the Hill District, which both the new stadium site and is targeted for gentrification. One Hill fought the Penguins corporate core for restrictions on expansion and a community benefits accord. They got a deal worth $10 million, but the battle goes on.

"We have a different problem," I interjected. "We have no development even to demand a piece of in Aliquippa, and we used to be the home of one of the world’s largest steel mills." I went on to briefly describe some local discussions about opening a closed hospital as part of our larger battle for ‘Medicare for All, Healthcare not Warfare, ‘ as well as some discussion we started around rebuilding locks and dams on the local rivers for green barge transport and green energy infrastructure. Steffi Domike of the USW Associates staff picks up on the latter point. "The Pittsburgh plateau is a good region for wind farms, but we’d have to modernize the energy grid to get the most from it." We agreed to follow up with more discussion on the implied projects in the weeks ahead.

One thing is quite clear about the Steelworkers. They are very serious, from President Leo Girard’s speeches down to the brochures in the lobby, about getting beyond traditional business unionism and fighting for a major green industrial policy and new structural reforms to get out of the economic crisis. Moreover, they want to do it in a way that benefits the entire working class. This is why they are putting resources behind the Blue-Green alliance with environmentalists and the ‘Green for All’ projects associated with Van Jones and his inner city youth programs. The steelworkers know they can’t do it alone, and need all the allies they can muster. What the union is doing during the G20 week is only incidental to this broader effort.

Two videos were also highlights of the teach-in. A short version of "The Battle of Seattle" was previewed, showing labor’s role in the anti-WTO global justice demonstrations going back ten years. Leo Gerard, now USW president, who appeared in the film, told those who just watched it that the union had bought up a good number of the two-DVD versions and combined it with a number of educational tools. "We’ll make in available to you for showing in your local groups or at house meetings. All we ask is that you have people sign in, and send us the lists."

The other video was on the super-exploitation of workers in Bangla Desh, and show horrific scenes of the harsh conditions at sites deconstructing old merchant freighters for salvaged metals. "This goes beyond abuse of workers," said Charlie Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee. "This is murder at the hands of these bosses."

As the afternoon sessions drew to a close, a group of us got a ride up to the Monumental Baptist Church in The Hill district. Literally near the top of the hill near the center of downtown Pittsburgh, the 100-year-old African American church, with a long legacy of involvement in social justice causes, had offered its grounds for a ‘Tent City’ of out-of-town protestors.

This afternoon, the church had also opened its sanctuary for a speech by Joseph Stiglitz, economist and Nobel laureate. A former top insider with the World Bank, Stiglitz was fired from that body for exposing and speaking out against the disastrous impact of its policies in many parts of the world. When combined with his critique of the Obama administration’s more dubious concessions and Wall Street bailouts, he has gained rock star status among global justice activists.
 
After an introduction by John Nichols of The Nation, Stiglitz made a small concession to the G20 by noting that adding a few countries was better than the G8, but still, some 170 countries around the world were on the outside of these deliberations.

"But make no mistake about what going on here," he warned. "Even if we had waged war on many of these countries, we could not have done as much damage in many parts of the world as that done by indirectly by the policies of these global powers. The question is not whether we have to change our ways, but how, and by how much."

The claim that the global recession was over was simply not true, Stiglitz went on, especially given growing unemployment. "Nor is it likely to end anytime soon. They’re simply deploying money in the wrong direction, bailing out the giant banks rather than a greater job-creating stimulus. What has happened to the banks that were supposedly ‘too big to fail?’ They’ve only gotten bigger, and their lobbyists are still thwarting needed regulation."

Leo Gerard of the USW was next up and picked up where Stiglitz left off. "Pay attention to this number, 30 million!" he told the crowd. That’s the true number of unemployed in this country. That’s what you get when you add up those looking for jobs, those working part time when they want more, and those who have given up, what they call the ‘labor reserve.’ You can tell be my accent that I’m a Canadian, and to give you some idea of the scale, 30 million is a greater number than every human being in my native country."

"We need jobs," Gerard continued, "we need good jobs, and we need green jobs. What make a good job? It’s a UNION job that can support a family, and we need a second stimulus to create them and a financial transaction tax on Wall Street speculation to pay for it all."

Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies and a native of Liberia brought the voice of the third world to the discussion. "What the G20 powers do," she explained, "is prevent the poor countries to act in their own interests and determine their own future." She stressed the need for ‘people power’ to bring change.

Carl Redwood Jr. brought it all back to the realities of Pittsburgh. Speaking for the Hill District Consensus Group, he told the story of the battle over the Penguin stadium to this crowd, where the problems just outside the church’s doors were staring everyone in the face.

We gathered up our crew a little early to head back downtown in time for the rally in Point Park. Out on the sidewalk, Redmond came up and said, "Hey, Aliquippa guy! I heard you at the union hall earlier." He tells me he was a reader of the Guardian back in the 1970s, when I was a writer there. We agree to stay in touch around the Green Jobs and Health Care campaigns. Making new connections is what these activities are all about.

We wind our way down the wet streets. It’s drizzling again, and still hot and humid. At a light, a UPS truck pulls up beside us, with side doors open. ‘Where is everyone?" he laughs, noting that it’s rush hour and the only crowds you see are batches of cops on every other corner. "It’s like Sunday afternoon with a Steelers game on!"

Point State Park is a large and pleasant open space at the tip of the ‘Golden Triangle,’ the site of the historic fort at the forks of the Ohio. Here the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers come together to form what the French explorers called "La Belle Riviere, or beautiful river, their translation of the Iroquois and Seneca word ‘Ohio,’ meaning roughly the same thing.

This night, however, it had a split personality. Part of it was fenced off and occupied by militarized police and the Secret Service, wanting it as a command center for the same reason the French and British armies did more than 200 years ago: it’s a strategic location. The other part was a huge double stage with a terrific sound system and giant video screen. The Steelworkers, the Sierra Club and Al Gore’s climate change group had gone all out to claim at least part of the space to deliver their message to the G20.

The question of the moment was whether the weather and oppressive police presence would prevent a crowd from forming. As I enter the area divided off for the rally, a youth street theater group was putting on a performance in front of a long line of cops in their new camouflage gear. The kids were having fun, while those in uniform tried to look stern. Inside, people were surveying the literature tables, food stands and cheering on the local opening bands. There were only 500 or so there, but once the speakers got going and more musicians warmed up, the crowd quickly grew to about 5000—enough to make it a success, given the circumstances.

A young speaker started off the rally. "Thomas Jefferson said that every generation needs a new revolution," said Alex Loorz of Kid vs. Global Warming. He noted that some adults weren’t worried about the worst effects of climate change because it was 50 years away. But in 50 years, he said, "my generation won’t be dead, and neither will our grandchildren, but if we don’t act now, it is my generation that is going to pay for it."

State Senator Jim Ferlo also welcomed everyone, stressing the need for a large and unified movement. "We need a powerful force to counter these pinheaded pundits in the media who want to cater to all this nonsense coming from the right wing!"

Next Joe Grushecky and the House Rockers, a local band, really got the crowd fired up. They gave us a very polished mix of Springsteen tunes with their own original numbers full of steel city grit and energy. They would be followed later by Big Head Todd and the Monsters.

Leo Gerard took center stage for the USW the third time this day, but was still in good form. "A wind turbine is made of 200 tons of steel and 8,000 parts," he shouted out, and this crowd knew exactly what he meant. "Imagine what we could do if we could turn not just this country’s jobs, but the world’s jobs green. Imagine if we had the will!" PA Governor Ed Rendell followed him on the stage, and likewise committed to green and clean energy innovation on the state level.

A number of local Democrats have got the Steelworkers message, and it was evident at this event. Only a new industrial policy with major structural reform is going to create jobs on a scale needed to rescue Pennsylvania and the rest of the Rust Belt. Only political will combined with street heat could challenge the G20. But a good number also are still dragging their feet, captured by the Blue Dogs and bowing to the neoliberal anti-government tirades of the far right. This is going to be a critical battleground in the months ahead.

I caught a few tunes from Big Head Todd, and then headed back to Beaver County for the night. The next two days will put the spotlight on battlegrounds of a different sort, in the streets with the police and in the realm of public opinion over what is really going on behind the closed door deliberations of the G20. Stay tuned!

[Carl Davidson is a writer for Beaver County Blue. He is also a national co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and a national board member of the US Solidarity Economy Network. He is author, along with Jerry Harris, of 'Cyberradicalism: A New Left for a Global Age.']
 

 

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