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The right’s ‘union thugs’ in Pennsylvania, Ohio press for fair wages and working conditions

“I was a nursing assistant for 30 odd years before I got my last job that required I be in a union,” Georgeanne Koelher (pictured) told Raw Story in Pittsburgh. “But it was the biggest perk that could’ve come with that job.”

Koehler, formerly a lifelong Republican, became a member of SEIU when she took that job — and it was to SEIU she turned when her brother, Billy, died of a preventable heart attack in March 2009. Billy, who had health insurance prior to being laid off in 2003, had used that insurance to cover his internal defibrillator and the periodically necessary battery replacements. But when he was hospitalized in 2007, uninsured because of his pre-existing condition, he was told to come up with the $10,000 on his own to have the surgery. Instead, he died, and Georgeanne called her union. “I asked if they wanted to go on this journey with’me,” she said, to try to make sure what happened to her brother didn’t happen to anyone else.

“They stand up for our families and our communities,” she said, and they helped her get active in the fight to pass the Affordable Care Act. That makes Koehler one of the people oft-maligned by conservatives as “union thugs” — a term she dismissed. “Sometimes, you have to consider the source,” she said. “I’m really proud to put on a purple’T-shirt that says ‘SEIU.’”

What does she think is behind the organized anti-union backlash apparent both during the health care reform fight and in its wake, as newly-elected tea-party Republicans attempt to squash unions in states like Wisconsin and Ohio? “I think people are afraid of unions because if they could turn us into 2-cent-an-hour workers, their corporate friends would be oh-so-happy,” she said. “In the 8 years that George W. Bush was president, wages stayed flat while CEO paid skyrocketed. The unions want to stop that.”

Of her political conversion, Koehler said, “I used to be a Republican, but now it’s as if Republicans measure a person’s worth by whether they’re CEOs or oil and gas men. People who wrap themselves in a pro-life cloak act as though America would be better off of we’d been aborted.” But, she added, “Unions will make sure we’re treated as though our lives matter, even if it’s to a CEO or a school district or a hospital.”

Mikey Bolt, who started off in a tube and pipe steel plant in western Pennsylvania in high school and stayed there for more than 30 years before stepping up to work as a field organizer for the Alliance for American Manufacturing and then as a political organizer for the United Steelworkers, is surprised at the union backlash he sees coming from Republicans. “It’s amazing,” he said, “They’ve taken the teachers, the government workers and the policemen and made them into the bad people.” But, he says, he knows why. “In many states, they’ve already broken the [private sector unions], and public sector unions represent a huge percentage of union members. So if they can get rid of them, there’s no one left to oppose them.”

Like Koehler, he doesn’t believe the union backlash is strictly a grassroots phenomenon. “If you say something long enough, it becomes gospel to some people, even if it’s not true,” he says. “[Some people] don’t understand what unions really do. They just listen to what they’re being told [about unions],” he added — which is why it’s so easy to call regular guys like him “thugs.”

The steel pipe and tube industry in Pennsylvania has had its share of hard times in the last decade, with competition from China driven by extremely low wages, a lack of regulation and its admittedly manipulated currency driving down prices below what the raw materials cost American companies. But, after a series of trade cases filed and eventually accepted by the Department of Commerce, “the pipe and tube industry is back,” he says. He’s even heard from realtors in his area that, “The only people who can buy houses nowadays are the pipe workers,” most of whom work for union plants.

Nonetheless, at a recent Focus on the Family meeting, he heard a speaker tell the audiences that “companies shut down because the workers were to much money,” prompting him to note that most of the recent plant closures have been in non-union shops. And despite the fact that factory closures prompted by international competitions makes workers eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance (including government-funded retraining), it’s the unions that “inform people of their benefits, tell the state that they exist when plants close and make sure people know they’re entitled to retraining.” In the non-union shops, the workers just evaporate into the masses of the unemployed.

Bill Padisak, a former hospital worker and union member who is now the elected president of the Mahoning-Trumbull County (Ohio) AFL-CIO, has seen the union fights up close and personal in Ohio during the fight to repeal Gov. John Kasich’s (R) union-busting legislation last year. “They are trying to frame the conversation to sway people against unions to decimate unions to achieve political goals,” he said. But, he added, Kasich’s campaign against the unions “make the fight against people personal” and made even some Ohio Republicans realize, “‘This governor is attacking’me!’”

He says that the fight is not over yet, at least when it comes to teachers in the state: “[Kasich] is balancing the state budget on the backs of schools,” despite the fact that “members are voluntarily going without raises, paying more for health insurance, putting more money into their own pensions.” And although Kasich and his supporters have derided teacher salaries as too high — claiming that teachers make more than $50,000 a year when, in reality, it’s only the teachers who have been at schools for decades who do — Padisak says “The started salary for a teacher around is is about $30,000.”

As Koehler said, “I can’t imagine having a teacher that doesn’t even make nurse’s wages. What kind of an education is a student going to walk out of school with [when their teachers are underpaid]?”

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