Lorain, Ohio unions elect independent slate

The election report to delegates at the Central Labor Council (CLC), in this union-dense Ohio home of the state's largest steel and auto manufacturing facilities, was one of a different type this November. That's because it was mainly a report on the victories of a newly formed independent labor slate of candidates, two dozen strong, that the labor federation recruited, ran and elected.

Riding a progressive national wave of electoral victories, all of the labor candidates had strong showings and all but two were elected.

"This was a step we took reluctantly, when the leaders of the (Democratic) Party just took us for granted and tried to roll over the rights of working people here, we had to stand up." stated Lorain County AFL-CIO President Harry Williamson.

A series of disputes between organized labor and the Democratic leadership led to the CLC's decision to work with allies, and run their own, independent slate of candidates for office.

After years of working to build a labor-community partnership, a Lorain Project Labor Agreement (PLA) was passed under former Mayor Tony Krasienko, a member of the Sheet Metal Workers union. But this May, under current Mayor Chase Ritenaur, just two months after its passge the City Council repealed it.

The PLA required that city contracts be manned by a unionized workforce that was at least 75% local and 9% minority during the period of the project.

"It took us three years to negotiate this historic agreement," said Joe Thayer, marketing director of the Sheet Metal Workers, "and it took them three days to kill it!"

Ritenauer backed repeal of the PLA and the Lorain City Council voted 8-2 in favor of the repeal.

It was reported that an estimated $29.6 million in city road and water projects were soon to be awarded.

"Before we had the PLA, Lorain regularly hired contractors from outside the city and county," stated Rick Lucente, councilman and Steelworkers union member, who voted no on the repeal motion. "It's about having work for people who live here and pay taxes here. Repealing the PLA is taking work away from people here and revenue away from our city."

The next big fight developed over a contract dispute involving the Teamsters union and the city. Mayor Ritenauer with some of the councilmen borrowed city trucks from nearby Elyria, also a Democratic stronghold, and returned, actually working on the trucks to try to break the Teamsters strike.

"That was the final straw," according to Williamson. "You just plain do not cross a picket line and scab! There has to be a line in the sand!"

Then, when the mayor scheduled the PLA repeal vote after petitions for partisan primary challenges against incumbents were due, the CLC decided to run its own slate of candidates.

A slate of two dozen labor-supported candidates, mostly union members, was set up to run against the incumbents.

"We intend to stand with you and with all of Lorain County's working people," said union teacher and newly elected 8th Ward council member Josh Thornesberry, who'd just triumphed over incumbent Frank DeTillio, who is  president of the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce. "This is just a first step, but we'll be taking many together in the future."

Thornesberry, along with fellow victors Greg Argenti and Mark Craig and IBEW member and candidate Dave Schaffer, was attending the CLC meeting to thank the federation for its support. Schaffer, in his first run for office, had fallen just 26 votes short in his race for a council seat in nearby Amherst.

The union crowd, some in "Independent Labor Party" shirts that the CLC had ordered for the campaign, greeted the candidates with loud cheers. Rather than bravado, the floor represented a sense of strength and optimism.

"We need to use this victory to build wider unity," said Thayer. "We didn't pick this fight, but we had to finish it. We need to build stronger alliances, work with more friends, even if we put our issues on a back burner to help and fight for our friends in the communities. We need to keep reaching out and show that our interests are the same as others. If we do that, then we'll grow."

The Lorain CLC is a very wide labor federation, with teachers, police and the United Food and Commercial Workers represented. The United Auto Workers CAP Council also attends all CLC meetings and the CLC leaders attend CAP meetings, as well. A local immigrant rights organization is also slated to affiliate this month.

In answer to an angry letter from Lorain County Democratic Party Chair Tony Giardini that called for Democratic union leaders to resign from party posts, the floor decided not to publicly reply, but to offer to buy a table to the upcoming party dinner and give all proceeds to Matt Lundy, a progressive Democratic state representative who is now running for the only GOP-held county commissioner position.

"It wasn't our first choice, but hopefully this can help bring the Democratic leaders to their senses. If not," said Machinist Art Thomas, "we've shown them that we can work with our friends and elect our own!"

Corrected 12/5/13 by the author, to more accurately state some of the chronology behind the labor decision to run an independent slate.

 

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