New Young Labor Leadership Helped Lamb Find His Way On Labor & Retirees

Supporters cheer for Conor Lamb, Democratic congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th District, at a rally at the United Steelworkers Building, March 9, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images"

PITTSBURGH, PA. – To many national political observers, Conor Lamb’s victory in the #PA18 election result may seem like a shock. However, the district, which has 70,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, has long been home to socially conservative, union-supporting, and independent-minded voters known to flip tickets.

As the election results emerge, it is clear that Conor Lamb’s margin of victory is due to Lamb winning the senior vote in conjunction with the massive labor turnout operation driven by local unions.

“Side by side with us at each step of the way were the men and women in organized labor,” Lamb said in his victory speech on Wednesday. “Organized labor built Western Pennsylvania…Tonight, they have reasserted their right to have a major part in our future.”

However, Lamb’s relationship with labor was not always so smooth.

On February 19th, Lamb said in a CBS Pittsburgh debate that he thought raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was a bit too steep for the area and said he instead favored a $10 minimum wage. Labor leaders were upset with Lamb.

“Everybody is sort of going through the motions,” one senior labor official told Payday Report on February 23rd.  “He’s got no fire, he’s got no passion to fight for them, and our members know it.”

Shortly, after Payday’s story appeared, Lamb went into immediate damage control, appearing at a Steelworkers event later that day for the cameras. Then on February 26th, he spent the day touring the district to attend multiple rallies about the Janus case, which when decided by the Supreme Court will likely make public-sector employment a  “right-to-work” area.

Lamb began to frequently bring up Rick Saccone’s support of “right-to-work” in front of union audiences and TV cameras. While Lamb doubled down on unions, his district, which shares a media market with Northern West Virginia was blasted with news of the successful West Virginia Teacher’s Strike. 

With over 80,000 union members and retirees in the district, #PA18 was a prime target for unions to turn out our members especially with the West Virginia victory giving a sense of momentum at labor’s back. 

Local union presidents ran personalized robocalls warning their members that Rick Saccone was in favor of “right-to-work” employment. According to Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Rich Bloomingdale, over a thousand union members from all over the country volunteered throughout the course of the campaign. They went door-to-door to tell Trump voting union members about Rick Saccone’s anti-union agenda.

“For many of our members, ‘right-to-work’ is the third rail. We are starting to see real movement when we tell them that Rick Saccone is for ‘right-to-work’ and against the bill to save coal miner’s pensions,” Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Frank Snyder told Payday on March 9th.

Many credit Lamb’s turnarounds regarding labor issues to 42-year-old newly elected Darrin Kelly. Kelly was recently elected as President of the Allegheny County Central Labor Council in early December. A firefighter by profession, Kelly and the 33-year-old Lamb immediately hit it off and Lamb began to emphasize labor heavily. He made appearances at labor union halls nearly every day in the final week of his campaign.

“Organized Labor united to educate union members and their families about the candidates’ positions on the issues and their records. We mobilized at the grassroots level to turn out union members and it paid off tonight,” said Kelly in a statement sent to Payday Report. “The results tonight should send a very clear message to candidates of all political parties across Pennsylvania: If you’re with workers, we’re with you. If you oppose workers, we’ll defeat you.”

In addition to labor’s targeted persuasion of union members, Lamb also heavily targeted senior citizens.

With Pennsylvania having the fourth highest opioid death rate in the country, former federal drug prosecutor Lamb used his campaign ads to focus on how important entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are to the ravaged region.

“I met a guy the other day who is 65, and he was taking care of his 14-year-old niece because there was no one else to do it,” said Lamb in his TV ad “Entitlements.” “And if you mess with his Social Security, he won’t be able to take care of her anymore.”

Since seniors over age 65 make up a whopping 140,000 voters in the district, the Lamb Campaign even brought in Jon “Bowzer” Bauman of the band Sha Na Na to campaign on their behalf. On the Sunday before the vote, Lamb held a giant rally with the United Mineworkers to emphasise his support of the Mine Pension Relief Act.

The results paid off. A Public Policy Polling taken a few days before the election showed that Lamb was pulling ahead with senior citizens, a group which traditionally had broken for Republicans.

Exit polling on seniors isn’t available yet. However, an exit poll taken by Public Policy Polling showed that Lamb’s doubling down on opposing Speaker Ryan’s plans to cut Medicare and Social Security may have ultimately pushed him over the top. 52% of voters said health care was their top issue.

According to the Public Policy Polling,  41% of voters said that Saccone’s support of Speaker Ryan’s health care agenda made them less likely to vote for Saccone while 28% said that Saccone’s view made them more likely to vote for him.

“Conor Lamb’s victory proves that fighting to protect and expand Social Security and Medicare, along with bringing down prescription drug prices, is a winning formula for Democrats this November,” said Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, President of Social Security Works PAC. “The GOP is about to get crushed by a tsunami of older Americans, who are ready to fight for their earned benefits by repealing and replacing Republicans.”

Although Lamb didn’t agree with the official AFL-CIO positions by refusing to support a Clean Dream Act without additional funding for ICE, refusing to support Medicare-for-all, and refusing to endorse the $15 an hour minimum wage, organized labor is still celebrating this victory as a sign of their political potency.

@ConorLambPA won this race because he proudly stood with unions, shared our agenda and spoke out for our members,” tweeted Western PA native AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.  @PaAFL_CIO used all the passion and resources to help elect him.”

#PA18 result is a wake-up call for every single politician,” tweeted Trumka.  “Earning the support of working people is a high bar that must be cleared with meaningful words and actions—not blind deference to party operatives or corporate interests.”

Randy Bryce, the ironworker from Wisconsin running against Speaker Paul Ryan, says that the ultimate message of the victory is it shows that union members have had enough of Donald Trump.

“For Conor Lamb to win in that district has me much more optimistic about where I am,” said Bryce, who used his email list to raise $15,000 on Lamb’s behalf. “I kinda hope Donald Trump comes here to start campaigning for Paul Ryan.”

(Full Disclosure: Randy Bryce was one of the first 20 subscribers to Payday Report when we launched in March of 2016 in Chattanooga, Tennessee)

About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild and is the senior labor reporter at Payday Report. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO and has written for the New York Times. He also writes for The Guardian.

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