MASSILLON, Ohio – A standing-room-only crowd of 4,500 crammed into the Perry High School auditorium here June 25 to greet Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and to rally for jobs. Hundreds more waited outside, hoping for a glimpse of the candidate.

The rally, and a packed town hall meeting on the jobs crisis, culminated a month of furious activity by Ohio unions to get out the vote against George W. Bush. Ohio is a presidential battleground state. Each weekend, hundreds of unionists went door-to-door, visiting members and their families in over 20 Ohio cities, registering voters and getting the union message – “Bush must go!” – out in a big way.

Ohio AFL-CIO President Bill Burga introduced Kerry. “When Bush was appointed by his daddy’s court to be president, he said he’d create jobs,” Burga remarked. “We hoped that meant here, not India. Ohio is now last in personal income growth and they’ve cut money for health care, veterans and schools. It’s damned unfair! We demand a change!”

That message is resonating nationwide as the Labor Department’s June unemployment report showed Bush’s much-vaunted economic recovery in a stall. Employers added only 112,000 new jobs, less than half the predicted number and under the 150,000 needed each month to keep up with natural labor force growth. Manufacturing lost 11,000 jobs, reversing several months in which the administration claimed job growth. The overall jobless rate was unchanged at 5.6 percent.

Kerry did not disappoint those at the rally, as he bashed Bush’s sorry record on jobs, education, health care and veterans’ benefits, saying Bush “has the worst jobs record since Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression.”

Ohio has been devastated by job losses since Bush took over, Kerry said, pointing out that the state has lost 290,000 jobs in that period.

The Timken Co., Canton’s largest employer, had just announced that it planned to close, putting another 3,000 workers out of work. Bush used Timken as a shining example of “an employer that is creating jobs and building prosperity” at a photo-op with Timken’s CEO just a year ago.

“There are no good jobs left since Bush took over,” Steelworkers union member Scott Albertson, a 23-year Timken worker, said during a panel discussion before the rally. “This is an economy of, by and for only the super-rich.”

Richard Lunde, a Vietnam vet and a 37-year steelworker at RTI Steel in Massillon, told Kerry, “It’s like I had to fight for my country and now I’m having to fight 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” Lunde cited Bush’s massive cuts in veterans’ benefits as he held a hand-painted sign reading, “Show the Jerk with a Smirk the Door in ’04!”

Striking nurses from Akron General Hospital attended the rally. “We’re striking over issues that Kerry supports – health care, stopping forced overtime and decent pensions,” said Sandy Robinson, chair of the Staff Nurses Association.

The loudest cheers from the huge crowd came when Kerry vowed to repeal Bush’s massive tax cuts for the wealthy. “When I’m president, we’ll close the tax loopholes that companies use to export our jobs overseas. We’ll enforce worker’s rights in trade agreements and lead the fight so workers can organize unions when they want to.”

Kerry promised to fight for “affordable health care for all Americans,” calling it a right, not a privilege. He also vowed to put a college education within the reach of any student.

“How do we pay for this, they ask? Easy! We pay for it by taking back Bush’s massive tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent.”

The war on Iraq figured prominently. “America should only go to war when it has to, not when some want to,” Kerry said.

Kathy Bryan, 10-year Timken steelworker, agreed. “The war really has hit home for us. My son is now in Iraq and my nephew, Richard Ramey, was killed in Iraq last February. Where do we go? We’re forced to fight a war and then they take our jobs away. We must change things!”

Kerry chose a huge labor-backed rally in Pittsburgh July 6 to announce that Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) is his running mate. Edwards, son of a textile worker, himself ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, charging that Bush has promoted a two-tier “haves and have-nots” economy, stealing from working people and giving to the rich.

The author can be reached at Tim Wheeler contributed to this story.