The Grassroots Difference: USW Activists Run – and Win – in Political Races Around the Country

The following article was originally published in the Spring 2024 issue of USW@Work.

When USW member Ed Price ran for a seat in the Louisiana State Senate in 2017, he faced long odds, facing a wealthy sugar cane farmer with the deep pockets and name recognition of a well-known political family.

Price, however, had the union difference on his side. As a member of Local 620 in Gonzales, La., Price had a coalition of fellow workers ready to knock on doors, make phone calls and speak to voters one-on-one about the issues. That grassroots campaign had a significant impact, and the Democrat won his seat with 63 percent of the vote.

“We didn’t have the largest budget, but it was door-to-door, walking, knocking, talking to people,” Price said. “We probably had anywhere from 25 to 35 people walking through the neighborhood every day, knocking on doors, talking to people. That made a huge difference.”

Longtime Leader

Price, who served for 26 years on his local school board before joining the legislature, credited his experience as a union negotiator with giving him the skills and knowledge to seek office. In neighboring Mississippi, that same union difference has helped Sherry Guyton Odneal hold public office for more than 20 years. Odneal was re-elected in November 2023 to her seat on the Lowndes County Election Commission.

Odneal serves as financial secretary of Local 351L at the BF Goodrich plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as the local Women of Steel committee chair and as a member of the West Alabama Labor Council. She also lends her efforts to the USW’s Rapid Response grassroots education and mobilization program.

Besides providing a better quality of life for workers, Odneal said, the USW’s contract language on political work allows her to devote time to her second career in public service.

“If I didn’t have the union, I wouldn’t be able to hold this position,” she said. “When I see something wrong, I don’t just want to complain. I want to do something about it.”

Odneal said she urges more of her USW colleagues to get involved in the political process for that reason, arguing that union members should put more people like them into office.

“We can make a big difference, getting out there, volunteering,” she said. “We want the people in office to be for working people.”

That can turn the tide on issues like health and safety, union organizing rights, wages, retirement security, health care, and other important policies, Odneal said.

“It’s not about the R or the D,” she said. “It’s about who is going to support working people.”

‘It Was Worth It’

Like Odneal, JoJo Burgess knows the value of one-on-one interactions with voters. He credits grassroots politics with his election win in November making him the first Black mayor of Washington, Pa., 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

Burgess, a member of Local 1557 at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, faced long odds at the outset of his campaign. Ultimately, he defeated the incumbent mayor in the primary and won the general election by 39 votes.

“Nobody thought I could win,” Burgess said. “If I don’t knock on those doors, I don’t win that race.”

Burgess said he ran for mayor because he believed he could make the biggest impact on the local level, and he wanted to show others that they, too, had the power to change their communities.

“I wanted to let people know that they have a voice and have a say in what’s going on,” he said. “I’m not a politician, but that was a means of getting where I needed to be.”

Burgess said he was proud to be his city’s first Black mayor, but that wasn’t his goal. “I don’t want to be known as the first,” he said. “I want someone else to be known as the next.”

Positive Role Model

The chance to set an example for his younger siblings was part of what motivated Justin Willis of Local 7-507 to seek office.

As a commissioner for Bridgeview in Cook County, near Chicago, Justin said the education he gained as a USW member played a big role in his election.

“We need to step up as leaders every chance we get,” Willis said. “Our union has a responsibility to make our communities better.”

Inspiring others and bringing them into the movement is part of being an effective leader, Willis said, whether it is in politics or in the union.

“We all have a chance to grow and learn,” he said. “The power of the tongue is mighty.”

Willis, Odneal and Burgess are just a few of the dozens of current or former elected officials with USW connections across the United States. They include Local 9 member Kathy Wilder, who won a write-in campaign for her Maine school board, and U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, who helped his fellow faculty members at the University of Pittsburgh win USW representation in 2021 before winning a seat in Congress the following year.

Those victories prove that “labor is not on defense anymore,” Deluzio said.

‘A Chance to Move Someone’

It was the 1967 election of the first black mayor of Gary, Ind., Richard G. Hatcher, that inspired DeWitt Walton to get involved in politics.

Walton, who was born in Mississippi and grew up in Gary went to work for Inland Steel in 1976 and quickly became active in his local union and his community. He went on to serve for more than 25 years as a union organizer and USW staff member, and later served as the program director for the Pittsburgh chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s “Breaking The Chains of Poverty” workforce development program.

Walton, who witnessed violent racism in high school and college, and later saw the steel industry’s struggles of the 1980s and 1990s first-hand, said he learned early on that he needed to speak out for himself and for others. Since 2016, he has held a seat on the 15-member Allegheny County Council, the legislative body serving more than 1.2 million people in Western Pennsylvania.

“My entire life has been one where I’ve had to deal with adversity,” he said. “I knew if I wasn’t at the table and part of the process, I’d be on the menu.”

Walton said that it’s important that all USW members get involved in the electoral process, through knocking on doors, talking to voters at their work sites, making phone calls, writing letters and other avenues.

“You have a chance to move someone,” he said. “You can’t ask for a better interaction than that.”

The need for lawmakers who share workers’ values pushed DeJonaé Shaw, a licensed vocational nurse and member of Local 7600 in California, to run for election to the California State Assembly.

Shaw said she would fight for the USW’s core values of workers’ rights, good jobs and quality health care.

“We need lawmakers who understand what it’s like to be a renter or to struggle to pay the mortgage,” said Shaw. “We need lawmakers who know what it means to decide between food and the medication you need. That’s why I’ve decided to run for office and why we need other union members to do the same.”

‘Get Out There’

Shaw and Odneal agreed that voters should choose the candidates who will fight for the issues that are most important to them.

When it comes to issues like workers’ rights, workplace safety and other priorities, “it’s all about who holds office,” Odneal said. “It’s important for union members to get out there.”

Walton said he hoped more union workers would vote and also consider seeking political office to help him and others push a workers-first agenda.

“There’s no better organization to help you get there,” he said, “than the United Steelworkers.”

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