By Ed Runyan
The new labor leader wanted to come to the Mahoning Valley as one of his first priorities.
YOUNGSTOWN — Richard Trumka came to northeast Ohio two days after being elected president of the AFL-CIO, visiting Cleveland, Warren and Youngstown to tell demoralized industrial workers to have hope.
“Workers right now are so discouraged. We need to raise their level of expectation,” he said as he participated in a roundtable discussion at the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor.
Among the reasons Trumka gave for having hope are that America still has the most natural resources of any country in the world and the best work force.
Another reason is the positive step by President Barack Obama to impose tariffs on Chinese-made tires as a result of surges in Chinese tire exports.
Trumka said the Bush administration for eight years failed to enforce trade laws on Chinese child labor, prison labor, and minimum wage. If such laws would have been enforced, two thirds of the American plant closings in the United States in the last eight years might not have taken place, he charged.
“This president has shown a willingness to enforce the trade laws,” Trumka said. “That’s a good sign.”
Trumka, 60, a native of Nemacolin, Pa., about 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh, worked in a coal mines as a young man, along with his father, grandfather and other relatives. He became president of the United Mine Workers in 1982.
The AFL-CIO is a federation of North American labor unions, representing 11.5 million workers.
Gary Steinbeck, a local representative for the United Steel Workers of America, echoed some of Trumka’s comments, saying two of the positive things that have happened in recent months were the elections of Obama and Trumka.
Though the Severstal Steel mill in Warren has been closed since last November, Obama’s stimulus plan has given a boost to manufacturing, with a blast furnace in Cleveland planning to restart on Monday.
“Things are starting to turn a bit,” he said.
Steinbeck was one of dozens of Mahoning Valley labor leaders who attended the roundtable and one of several who was invited to speak as part of Trumka’s plan to travel across America to listen to people, develop a campaign and an agenda, educate, agitate and organize.
Trumka made a stop at the gates of the closed Severstal mill earlier Friday to talk to the laid-off workers there.
Steinbeck said he’d like to see changes in the bankruptcy laws that allow companies such as Delphi Packard Electric to shed obligation to their retires.
“It’s a rotten shame when people wake up after working 40 years [and retiring] and no longer have health care. What do you do? Where do you go?”
Laid off Severstal steelworker George Calko, a fourth-generation steel worker, said he has always been proud to walk into a store and know that “the fingerprints of steelworkers” are on the golf shafts, washing machines and other products we buy.
“Now I’m scared because I know the products coming in have not been made with the same craftsmanship,” he said.
Bill Padisak, president of the Trumbull Mahoning Labor Council, said he thinks Trumka’s visit to Youngstown is probably the first ever for a sitting president of the AFL-CIO.
“The day after the convention [at which Trumka was elected AFL-CIO president], he said ‘I want to come to Youngstown. I want to go to Warren.’ He wanted to hit the ground running,” Padisak said.