By Mike Elk, Payday Report
February 11, 2020
Pittsburgh, PA. – This weekend, the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council voted to oppose the re-election of PA State Representative Summer Lee, the first black woman elected to the State House from Western PA.
Instead, they endorsed her primary opponent, Chris Roland, a white North Braddock councilman who supports fracking.
Despite being a socialist and well-regarded champion of workers’ rights who has garnered endorsements from SEIU and United Electrical Workers (UE), Lee is facing massive financial opposition from unions in a re-election bid, who see the 32-year-old Lee’s organizing capabilities as a threat to labor’s old guard.
Lee is the only incumbent who failed to gain the labor council’s endorsement.
Many see the opposition to Lee as another sign of racism that has long been prevalent within the white-male dominated leadership of construction and manufacturing unions in Western Pennsylvania.
“Black women are suppose to be quiet and go along with the flow, don’t rock the boat, and that’s not the type that Summer is,” says Lou Berry, a long-time African-American community activist.
Organized labor in Western PA is spending unprecedented amounts to defeat her.
Her opponent, pro-fracking North Braddock councilman Chris Roland, has already raised $77,635, with 87% of his donations coming from local unions. Steamfitters Local 449 and the Laborers have both given $20,000 to her opponent while the local IBEW and Plumbers locals each gave $10,000 each.
Anticipating a likely challenge from pro-fossil fuels interests, Lee already has $55,789 on hand to fight off Roland’s challenge.
Lee has drawn the opposition from many of the old-guard conservative unions in the region in large part because of her outspoken calls for a Green New Deal and crackdown on illegal air emissions from steel mills.
As a result of repeated Clean Air Act violations by U.S. Steel, which the Steelworkers union have actively helped the company to cover up, Pittsburgh being ranked perennially as having the worst air quality on the East Coast. (See our story of one violate incident from last year “Steelworkers Heckle Black State Rep at Air Quality Crisis Hearing”)
Lee has also helped found a new political action organization, UNITE, which has successfully defeated several local labor-backed Democratic incumbents seen as friendly to the fossil fuel industry.
Most notably, UNITE helped to lead the effort to defeat Allegheny County Council President John DeFazio, who had been the pro-fracking long-time director of the Steelworkers in Pennsylvania. Instead, electing 30-year-old Bethany Hallam, an opponent of expanded fossil fuel production, who beat the leader of labor’s old guard Defazio by a margin of 54%-46%.
Lee has also vigorously fought against an effort to frack on U.S. Steel’s property in Braddock, where she grew up and represents in the State House.
“These neighborhoods are already plagued by decades of violative industry practices that have caused some of the highest childhood asthma rates in the country, according to numerous medical reports. Fracking would present an additional environmental stressor for these communities to deal with,” wrote Lee in a letter opposing a fracking permit last year.