By Tom Conway
USW International President
Al Polk will bid his wife goodbye on Oct. 11 and set out for New Hampshire with boots, gloves, heavy coat, windshield scraper and shovel in the trunk of his Chevy Impala.
As the weather grows colder over the next few weeks, the fight for America’s future will also reach a turning point. And there’s no way the 79-year-old will let brutal temperatures, ice or snowstorms impede his efforts to turn out Granite State voters for the crucial Nov. 8 election.
Polk, a Massachusetts resident and member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), is among thousands of union activists across the country committed to knocking on doors, handing out leaflets and organizing rallies to support the pro-worker candidates needed to continue moving America forward the next two years.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in it,” declared Polk, who served as president of his United Steelworkers (USW) local at Cleveland Twist Drill in Mansfield, Mass., for 20 years and then worked on the union staff before retiring in 2015.
Polk has volunteered for election work in New Hampshire for decades.
He’s lived in hotels for weeks at a stretch, just as he intends to do again this year. He’s endured drenching rain as well as early winter snowstorms forcing him to shovel out his car before long days of door-knocking.
He’s talked with thousands of fellow union members, securing untold votes with his respectful doorstep advocacy, and handed out thousands of flyers at USW-represented workplaces like the Manchester Water Works, New Hampshire Ball Bearings in Laconia and 3M in Tilton.
And while every election has its pivotal issues — the Democrats’ tireless work on invigorating the economy and growing the middle class proved decisive factors in 2020, for example — Polk cannot remember another time when voters in New Hampshire and throughout the country faced so stark a choice as they do this year.
“Keep the forward movement or stand still,” explained Polk, who expects to log many miles traveling around the state to highlight the string of accomplishments that pro-worker officials and their union allies racked up since President Joe Biden took office just 20 months ago.
That list of accomplishments includes the American Rescue Plan, which provided the child care assistance and other support that families needed to survive the COVID-19 pandemic while also saving the retirements of 1.3 million Americans enrolled in faltering multiemployer pension plans.
It includes the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, already contributing to record job growth by rebuilding roads, bridges, waterways, energy systems and communications networks with union labor and products.
And it includes the CHIPS and Science Act, intended to spur production of crucial supply chains, and the Inflation Reduction Act, which imposes a $35 cap on insulin costs for Medicare recipients, fuels development of the clean economy and forces the wealthiest Americans to begin paying their fair share in taxes.
These bills set the stage for a manufacturing renaissance after years of industrial decline, Polk said, adding he often “felt like a mortician” over the years while assisting families devastated by mill and plant closures.
Electing more pro-worker officials would pave the way for still more prosperity. Passage of the Protecting the right to Organize (PRO) Act, for example, would eliminate barriers to union organizing and help more Americans secure family-sustaining wages, safe working conditions and a voice on the job.
As he knocks on doors, Polk will emphasize the support that Democratic officials like New Hampshire’s Sen. Maggie Hassan and U.S. Reps. Chris Pappas and Annie Kuster, all seeking reelection this year, provided for worker-friendly bills.
But he’ll also point out the important role that more than a dozen Republicans in the New Hampshire legislature played in defeating anti-worker legislation in the state last year. These Republicans, several of them union members themselves, joined forces with Democrats to kill a falsely named right-to-work bill that would have undermined unions and weakened workers’ voices.
“It’s very simple,” Polk said of the USW’s approach to candidates. “If they support our issues, we support them. If they don’t support our issues, we don’t support them.”
“It’s bipartisan,” agreed John Gros, president of USW Local 13–447 in Westwego, La., citing his members’ close ties with city Councilman Johnny Nobles, a member of the GOP. “We endorse Republicans, just like we endorse Democrats. They just have to support working men and women.”
If union-endorsed officials of either party fail to honor their promises to working people, he said, he’ll work to defeat them in the next election.
Getting out the vote for pro-worker candidates is essential in countering the billions that corporations spend to influence elections, observed Gros, noting that big business courts officials who will let them cut corners on safety, violate labor rights and suppress workers’ voices.
During the last administration, pro-corporate appointees at the National Labor Relations Board turned the agency against the very workers it was created to serve. But Biden, elected largely with the support of USW members and other union workers, quickly put the agency back on course.
“We can’t throw a lot of money at folks because we don’t have a lot of money,” said Gros, who also serves as vice president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO and the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO. “We have votes. We have boots on the ground.”
“That’s why it’s so important that we get out there,” he said of union voters. “Every vote does make a difference.”