The Erie Labor Temple is an old, proud building that stands in the middle of downtown State Street, its location, like its name, proof of a time when unions lorded over the city. People still talk about the days when 15,000 union members worked at the General Electric locomotive plant -- more workers than all of the plants combined currently employ in Erie County.
Saturday morning at the temple, AFL-CIO organizers set out doughnuts and coffee and held a meeting for workers willing to give up half a weekend to save union jobs. Their task would be to knock on members' doors to get the word out that this year's presidential election is crucial for jobs and health care, not to mention that the Democrat, Sen. John F. Kerry, is their friend. The hope was that 40 to 50 workers might show up.
Instead, 90 people crowded a meeting room with faded walls and warped floors. They included steelworkers and carpenters, construction workers and assembly line crews, and people whose jobs were outsourced. Everyone seemed excited, but serious, about being part of the earliest, biggest, on-the-ground get-out-the-vote operation the AFL-CIO has ever mounted -- with more than 100 walks in 72 cities in 16 states during the four Saturdays in June.
"We're hitting more than 400,000 union households in Pennsylvania in June because this November is that important to us," David Keicher, a national field representative for the AFL-CIO's Northeast region, told the workers. He had brought a few foot soldiers from his home base in Buffalo, 89 miles away, and promised more next Saturday.
With Pennsylvania on everyone's list of key battleground states (President Bush has visited here more than two dozen times -- more frequently than any other state besides his own Texas), the workers knew that Republican groups are mounting their own walks. And, yes, they had heard that every political group in the country seems to have decided to go back to campaigning door to door.
Still, the day felt critically important.
"We're losing our jobs," said Ron Oliver, a die-cast machine operator who is president of the steelworkers union local. He was explaining why he was sacrificing time with his two kids to walk the walk on a cloudy, "dreary Erie," day. "We've lost roughly 150,000 manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania in the last three years -- about 15,000 jobs in this part of the state. Guys went to work where their fathers used to work, and now, they're living with their parents because they lost their houses. The jobs are going overseas."
"We're all getting NAFTA-ized," said Donna Cramer, who has been doing electrical wiring for GE locomotives for 30 years. She recalled how "25 five years ago, unions were tough and bad, and we could take on any company in the country. . . . [Now] most of our parts are made elsewhere. I work on the radiator cab, for example, and the radiator cab is now made in Mexico. I'm working overtime today because the radiator cab that was supposed to get here from Mexico didn't come on time."
Every volunteer canvasser was given a packet with union members' addresses, a suggested script and a flyer on how Kerry and Bush differ on issues. (On the outsourcing of jobs, the union members' biggest complaint, Bush is quoted as saying it makes sense if it saves companies money.) John Tretter, a construction worker who was elected business manager of the labor council for Erie and two other counties two years ago, grumbled at the forms. "Lots to read and remember," he said. "It could be intimidating to the members."
Still, he good-naturedly took his packet to what he called "a transitional neighborhood" on the east side of Erie. Passing boarded, dark-brick factory buildings that would make high-priced lofts elsewhere, he talked up Erie as though its good times were still ahead. The neighborhood of Cape Cods and Dutch Colonials he had to walk, once a Polish enclave, was multiethnic, with African American, Dominican and Puerto Rican families the largest part of the stew. "This is the American dream we're walking through," he said. If Tretter, a big, ruddy man with a white, spiky crew cut and tiny gold hoop, noticed that he stood out, he did not let on. "I love meeting people," he said.
But finding people home on a Saturday proved elusive. "This is like work," Tretter said, after marking "not home" for the fifth straight time on the union forms, then writing, as suggested, a personal note ("sorry I missed you") on a leaflet to leave on screen doors. When he did find a union member, he was elated. "Hello, Ben Turner!" he said to a retired gentleman in a T-shirt that read "Laborer."
When Tretter asked him, "Which issue is most important to you in this election: health care, jobs or Social Security?" as his packet demanded, Turner did not make it easy. "All of them are equally important," he said. "Why do I have to choose?"
"They should have an 'all of the above' on this," Tretter said afterward, shaking his head.
Nearly four hours later, he had talked to 10 people out of 40 attempts. Six people said they would vote for Kerry, three were undecided, and one said she would vote for Bush.
"Erie is a city of 100,000 people, but it's like a small town," he said. "And it's more than 2 to 1 Democrat."
Back at the union temple, everyone compared notes over hot dogs and chips. The canvassers kept saying that if it was not for all the people not home, they would have scored big. People who answered their doors were friendly. They wanted to talk about the issues and the election. And most were for Kerry. Yes, everyone agreed, they would do this again next Saturday. "Who knows?" Keicher, the union field rep said. "We might get 150 to 175 people next time."