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Vol. 72/No. 11      March 17, 2008

Socialists celebrate three decades
of party building in Pittsburgh
PITTSBURGH—A special Militant Labor Forum here February 16 celebrated more than three decades of building the Socialist Workers Party in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. Socialists closed the branch here shortly after the meeting in order to strengthen the party’s efforts to respond to political opportunities among packinghouse and other workers in the Midwest.

Among the 30 people attending the celebration were longtime supporters and friends of the Socialist Workers Party, political activists who had worked with the Pittsburgh branch, and youth learning about the communist movement.

Ryan Scott, a member of the Young Socialists and Socialist Workers candidate for Pittsburgh mayor in 2007, welcomed people to the event and introduced Betsy Farley. Farley, who was in the Pittsburgh branch from 1979 to 1983, currently lives in Chicago and is the Socialist Workers candidate for U.S. Senate in Illinois.

“The Pittsburgh branch was established in 1973 as a coal branch to reach out to the renewed struggles by coal miners for safety and black lung benefits,” she said. In 1969, 45,000 coal miners went on strike in West Virginia, demanding that black lung be recognized as an occupational disease. The year before, 78 miners had been killed in an explosion in Farmington, West Virginia.

Farley described how, out of battles around health and safety issues, a fight developed which saw the ranks transform the United Mine Workers of America. In 1977-78, in an attempt to break the union, the coal bosses provoked a 110-day national strike when miners voted down two concession contracts. “The Pittsburgh branch was involved in these struggles,” Farley said.

The mine workers’ vanguard role had an impact on other workers. In 1975 a movement called Steelworkers Fight Back developed to democratize the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). This was a struggle to oust the bureaucracy in the USWA and to win the right to vote on contracts. While the campaign was not successful, it indicated an important development in working-class politics, she noted.

These were some of the developments that led to the party make a turn to the industrial working class in 1979, to act on growing opportunities to carry out revolutionary politics in the trade unions.

Farley mentioned some of the fights the party became involved in. “Socialist miners were active in the Coal Employment Project in Pittsburgh,” Farley said. The CEP was an organization of women fighting to get hired or maintain jobs in coal mines.

“The initial experience gained through the Pittsburgh branch enabled the party to extend into the coalfields and establish branches in Morgantown and Charleston, West Virginia, and in Birmingham, Alabama, and Utah,” she added.

“The branch was active in struggles against racism,” said Farley. “When the Klan decided to march in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, they were met by union contingents of miners, steel workers, and rail workers.”

The Socialist Workers Party was involved in protests against police brutality, including the fight that erupted in 1995 when Jonny Gammage, a Black man, was killed at a traffic stop by five white cops.

Tony Lane, who was a leader of the Pittsburgh branch, spoke about some of the struggles the branch has joined in recent years. In 2001, socialist coal miners at the Maple Creek mine in southwestern Pennsylvania were part of a fight to beat back union-busting efforts of coal boss Robert Murray, who owns the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah where six miners were entombed and three rescue workers killed last year. Socialists joined broader social fights in the coalfields, and in 2002 participated in the Widow’s Walk, a march by miners’ wives from Charleston to Washington, D.C., demanding black lung benefits.

“In our election campaign in 2002 we responded to the flooding at the Quecreek mine, explaining how the fight for safety was becoming more important in face of the bosses’ profit drive,” said Lane.

During the party’s election campaign for mayor of Pittsburgh in 2005, the party successfully challenged Pennsylvania’s undemocratic loyalty oath. This throwback to the anticommunist witch hunt of the 1950s required candidates running for public office to sign an affidavit stating that they were not subversive. The party was placed on the 2005 ballot without having to sign, and in 2006 the law was challenged on a statewide level. The state of Pennsylvania struck the law off the books.

“We are celebrating the fights we have been part of, and the fights of today and tomorrow we will all be joining in and helping to advance,” Lane said, in concluding his remarks.

Participants at the meeting bought more than $500 worth of Pathfinder books and contributed $575 to the Militant reporting team in Cuba.  
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