Conn. unionists cast wider net for votes

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Pat Highsmith spent her day off last Saturday traveling 150 miles to Bethlehem, Pa., to discuss the presidential election with fellow union members. One of 3 million industrial workers whose plants closed during the last four years, Highsmith now works as a certified nurse’s assistant, with less pay and no benefits.

“I felt like I was home,” said Highsmith, describing the camaraderie with unemployed steelworkers who greeted the Connecticut buses and paired off to knock on the doors of union households.

She quickly found that in this Republican county George W. Bush was not getting away with empty claims of creating jobs and health care.

A retired autoworker and veteran, who said he can no longer afford rising medical co-pays and prescription drug costs, exclaimed, “I voted Republican in the local election, but I’m not voting for Bush!”

“Labor’s vote can make the difference for Kerry to carry this state,” said Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President William George, thanking the volunteers who visited 5,000 homes. Organized trips to battleground states by activists from states considered solid for Kerry are forging solidarity that goes beyond workplace or state boundaries.

“What a difference when you greet people at their door and say ‘we’re union, too,’” said Len Yannielli, a community college teacher from Naugatuck, Conn., who traveled to New Hampshire. He and 100 members of Service Employees International Union found a welcome reception as they knocked on doors, armed with handouts showing a 47.1 percent increase in the number of uninsured during Bush’s reign.

“An anti-union right wing has been active in the New Hampshire state Legislature for years,” said Merrilee Milstein, the AFL-CIO’s deputy northeast regional director. She credits local unions and the help from neighboring states with “creating a new sense of the labor movement in New Hampshire. Thousands and thousands of people have been involved in a very personal way to fight George Bush and the right wing.”

Within Connecticut, hundreds of labor and community activists have registered a record number of new voters, especially in African American and Latino neighborhoods. In New Haven, Beulah Pigott, a retiree and grandmother of six, devoted her Saturday to registering voters at a supermarket. “Please take a moment,” she said convincing several young women to get involved. “This is important for your lives.”

Union members and their allies from around Connecticut are also doing their part to change Congress by knocking on doors to defeat moderate Republicans in the 2nd and 4th Congressional Districts who have voted with the Bush agenda. The impact of trips to battleground states by labor, women’s and environmental groups is giving confidence to local campaigns and the growing movement for good jobs, health care and an end to war.

Richard Hill, a New Haven musician and teacher, felt alienated and helpless to influence the election before joining the labor bus to Bethlehem, Pa.

“After making this trip,” he said, “I feel connected to a powerful movement that will have a life after this election.”

The author can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com.