Dec 29, 2021 • 19M

[Listen] We went on Sirius XM Progress Radio to talk unions in Appalachia, fighting disinformation, and midterm politics.

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Appears in this episode

John Russell
Politics for rednecks and hippies. Based in the Upper Ohio Valley. By @heyjohnrussell
Episode details
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I was on my fourth re-heating of Christmas leftovers when a friend emailed me just in time for the gravy to explode and varnish the inside of my microwave. 

It was an invite from Joe Sudbay, Host of State of The States on Sirius XM Progress Channel 127, and co-host of Progress Presents on the same channel asking me to come on the show.

We talked about unions in Appalachia, fighting far-right disinformation with bubble gum, shoelaces, and bootstrap punky newsletters, and what politics looks like in Ohio (and other Missouri-esque states) for the midterms. It’s cool. Press play. Also, use the comment section. It’s why I switched to Substack. 

Happy New Year ya filthy animals.

Podcast Transcript

Joe Sudbay  

This is Progress Presents on Sirius XM Progress 127.

Joe Sudbay  

This is indeed Sirius XM Progress Progress Presents, my name is Joe Sudbay. Earlier today, More Perfect Union tweeted at their account More Perfect US. They tweeted a video about 2021. And the intro was 40 million workers quit. 100,000 plus on strike. 550 plus new unions. 2021 was the year of the worker. It really has been amazing. And there's even, I've tried to follow it pretty closely, there's even been more activity around the country than I even knew. And I'm really glad right now to be joined by John Russell, who writes The Holler. It's an Appalachian-based independent media newsletter. And John has been covering some of the union activity in the Upper Ohio Valley, and I'm so glad you could talk to us today. John, welcome to the show.

John Russell  

Hey, Joe, it's a pleasure to be here. Excited to be on, and thanks for having me.

Joe Sudbay  

Well, I'm glad you could. So The Holler is, you know, one of the things I love about finding new media sources is I find like it allows people to provide coverage that we have all otherwise missed. And you are really filling, in my opinion, filling a niche right here. One of the stories that really struck me, and you wrote about it a couple of weeks ago, was the strike in Huntington, West Virginia, at a place called Special Metals. And I'm reading and thinking, how did I not know about this? But tell us about it, John, because it's really fascinating in terms of what the company does, who owns it, and what's been playing out in Huntington.

John Russell  

Yeah, this is a really interesting story. I'm glad that strike-a-lachia is a thing that is happening and even more glad to be able to cover it. Before we get into that. I do want to shout out some other independent reporters who have made these trips really possible. I think your listeners would all love to check out Mike Elk of the Payday Report out of Pittsburgh, Mike and I traveled down to Huntington. And

Joe Sudbay  

Mike's a great friend. The PayDay Report does great work. And he's been having a rough time because he has COVID. He's got pretty bad asthma. So hopefully he's gonna be okay, cuz he's a yeah, he's valuable. 

John Russell  

He is. He is. One of the beautiful things about, you know, about reader and listener, supported media, I know a lot of people have stepped up from his audience to help him out with COVID. And sounds like he's getting better. And we all wish him a good recovery.

But Mike and I went down to Huntington, where 450 steelworkers are on strike at Special Metals like you outlined. Here's the interesting thing about that. The company is owned by Warren Buffett, of course, famous billionaire, also of note, a prominent Democratic donor, and the company, Special Metals - the workers went out on October 1, and the company was really driving hardline cuts in overtime pay, seniority, vacation days. But most of all, health care. They're looking at an increase as drastic as as $700 per month for every member.

So the workers are still out. We went down, and we and we talked to a lot of them who are taking the fight into their own hands and, and asking for a basic fair shake from a company that is owned, of course by Buffett's ownership group, which, by the way has put up, you know, over the quarter that they've been on strike about $6 billion dollars in profits. So certainly affordable. But one of the things I really wanted to get into on this story was who I met on the picket lines and wonder if I can go into that a little bit.

Joe Sudbay  

Sure. Please do. Please do, John. That's exactly why I wanted you to come on. Yeah, definitely.

John Russell  

Yeah, and this is something I really want to drive home, you know, to progressive listeners because here we are in Appalachia, and you know, I've went out to places like Iowa too, to cover the John Deere strikes, but these are working-class voters in now red areas of the country. But we really need to remember that forever, you know, West Virginia has been blue longer than it has been red. We have, of course, Senator Manchin elected from West Virginia. So I'm on the picket lines down there in Huntington. And of all the lines that have been on this year, there's only one politician that I have met, actually out on the lines with the workers. That was in Huntington, West Virginia. And was it Joe Manchin? It was not. Was it Democrat? It was not.

The only politician I've met on the strike lines was a Republican state representative, who came out to the workers in Huntington, this guy owns a hotdog stand, and he shows up with 300 hot dogs in hand, right? And he starts passing them out to workers, which I can attest, a hot dog in the freezing cold when you are striking for your rights, right around Christmas, is the kind of thing that you remember, it kind of hits different, right? And so, you know, is this Republican going to go hand out hot dogs, and then turn around, go to the statehouse, and gut labor rights? Yeah, probably. But one of the angles here, when it comes to politics, and media, and covering these strikes, especially for people who vote for Democrats like me, we have got to do a much better job, because who is going to tell those workers about the violations of labor rights by a Republican that might show up and handout hotdogs?

We don't really have a media network that's talking to these folks, we don't have a good party infrastructure in these places where we used to, and we're not even showing up on these lines, where workers are trying to take a fight into their own hands after being let down by other institutions. I think that's a really important angle that has emerged here, that also copies over in interesting ways, say to the Deere strikers in Iowa.

Because Iowa is one of those states that has the highest concentration of counties that went from voting Obama twice to voting for Donald Trump. You know? So we have these pockets of workers who are fighting for all of these priorities in the exact places where we need them. And in my opinion, we as Democrats, we're missing a big opportunity to show up and to talk about it and actually deliver.

Joe Sudbay  

It's really important. And showing up is part of it again, especially as you point out, people, Democrats have stopped showing up. Yeah, I do know, you know, and that's why it was really significant. I think with the Deere strike, it was the Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, who showed up and walked the picket line. That was, I think, a really important point. And Biden sent out a statement. And you know, the National Labor Relations Board is taking actions that are pro-labor. But we really need to make sure that workers know who's got their back. And I do think that there has just been, and John, you've been a candidate, you've worked on campaigns, you've been on the front lines, and have seen, you know, how often we can neglect that really important work. Talk about a little bit about that.

John Russell  

Yeah, and you know, I do want to credit... you know Manchin didn't show up in West Virginia, hasn't even made a statement yet. I do know, you know, a couple of candidates out in Iowa did show up, like you were recounting, the labor secretary. I know Abby Finkenauer, and Tom Vilsack showed up there, too.

But let's just take Iowa, for example. I mean, we can't just be showing up once, or even twice. I mean, these are working-class voters in the heart of right where we need to win them back, if we're to grapple with the very hard political realities that the Senate is presenting us. It needs to be more than just one or two visits.

This also gets into the problem of, if we're showing up to these picket lines, how are we telling people that we're showing up? Because, of course, everybody's well aware, the far-right media network has had this 50-year head start, and just really racked up wins as far as, you know, a network to deliver what they need to say to their voters. I mean, it's, you know, it starts with Fox News. But it goes to Ogden-owned papers. It's 24/7, on every device. There are Facebook groups that have popped up and have 5000 people in a town that nobody could really put on the map. And those are everywhere, and of course, radio networks and all that.

So really, one of the things that I'm seeing not only do we need to do a better job at showing up when workers are on strike in a place like Iowa and consistently keep doing that. But the missing link here to me that I really want to get out there is we need to invest so much more, and in probably in every direction, in a way to deliver what we need to say to voters because it's really absent right now.

Joe Sudbay  

I couldn't agree more. I couldn't agree more. It's, you know, and I think too many Democrats make the mistake of thinking that the traditional media is going to do the job, and it doesn't. And, and we rely, we rely on them.

And that's why, look, I mean, I consider it a gift that I get to be on Sirius XM Progress, which is one of the few I mean, remember, Doug Jones came with Mike, when he came on Doug Jones when he was a Senator came on with Mike Signorelli. And he told him, You know, I really like doing your show, because in some parts of Alabama, it's the only progressive radio we get.

And look, I think we do, you know, my colleagues here do a great job. But there should be more of us, around the country, and especially in a lot of these places to counter what we're seeing. You know, what slays me about the union fight, John, I'm a little older than some, some of the folks that I know, in politics, but this whole anti-union agenda started with Ronald Reagan in such a vicious way. It has been dogma for the GOP, and that's what gets my ass is that you know, the Republicans, they will screw over unions every chance they get, and Democrats need to show unions, they're on their side.

John Russell  

Yeah, that is, for sure. And, you know, part of the reason... I get to go in hard at Democrats because I have worked for them for so long. And I've done, you know, a lot of door-knocking, and I really want to see them succeed.

But just to go at that point, too. I mean, we've got "Scranton Joe", "Unions Built The Middle-Class Joe", as the President here. When you got workers on strike, in all of those pivot counties - move the White House there. You know? Show up more than twice. Talk about how we need the PRO Act to pass right now, and talk about the filibuster standing in its way. Call Senator Manchin out for not showing up on the Huntington strike lines when a Republican is there with hot dogs. You know?

These are things... of course, we need. We have a very slim majority, everybody knows this. And we need a little slack cut on that. But that doesn't prevent us from doing the things that are easy wins. And I think we have to spend a lot more time showing up and we could be spending a lot more time scaling up the successful progressive media projects that can help us get our story out there. There needs to be a lot more of that.

Joe Sudbay  

Right, right there. Absolutely. Right. And, and also, you know, telling the stories of these workers in a few minutes, I'm going to be talking to CJ Peterson, from Iowa, about meatpacking plants and just kind of their consolidation and The Times wrote an article about it today and actually, CJ had written a piece about it. But you know, workers, meatpacking workers get screwed. And we saw how valuable they were during the pandemic, and just how abused they were and so many workers.

That's one of the things that's been, you know, most invigorating about the past year is watching the growth of unions, watching the rebirth of many unions, watching these guys like... you talk to Chad Thompson from that from the union UAW (*USW). He said, "Just be fair. Pay the guys what they're worth a reasonable fair raise, don't mess with our insurance or vacation." You know, John Russell, that doesn't sound like a lot to ask of Warren Buffett, who just like you said, has made $6 billion since this, since this strike started.

John Russell  

Yeah, it really isn't a lot to ask. And you know what? The strikes that I've covered, I've been really heartened to see a couple of these locals pull through. We were just up in Erie with the Iron Workers, Local 851, a group of great people up there, you know. They won themselves, a 3% wage increase. They got a dental plan for the first time in company history. That's that's, you know, potentially 1000s of dollars for families.

And it's really heartening, you know when you see things failing in Washington, but then you go to the locals, the last place, maybe deep in the heart of West Virginia, the last place you would expect progressive priorities to win and you see people fighting for themselves and winning for themselves. It is really heartening.

And another, you know, political thing I see here all the time. I can't tell you the number of people that I've met on these on these strike lines in some of the reddest places. They're loud about two things on Facebook. They're loud about Donald Trump, sure, but they're loud about labor rights and union organizing, and you know, pay, health care, and quality of life right where they are. Those are the things they want to fight for. They're doing it for themselves, and we can help them out. And we can do a lot better job of that.

Joe Sudbay  

On those lines, one member of Congress who actually represents you in the United States Senate, does a really good job of showing workers he represents them. And that's Sherrod Brown. And I mean, he, you know, he's one of… he like he should be a model for a lot of members. And you've got a Senate race right now with Tim Ryan, who's another guy who strikes me as being able to have that kind of conversation with folks. Versus, on the Republican side, in your state John, the Republican primary right now is just a shit show of billionaires fighting with each other or billionaire-funded candidates. Just before we let you go, what are you looking for, what is 2022 looking like politically in Ohio?

John Russell  

You know, I'm gonna go general on this one. Of course, the Republican side is a shit show. And we really have to watch out for, unfortunately, any of their candidates.

But here's what I want to say about Ohio. You know, The Holler that I started, it's based in the 6th Congressional District. This is eastern Ohio. Far eastern. And that 6th Congressional District, it tracks the river all the way down the side of the state bordering West Virginia, and Kentucky.

And here's what's interesting about it. The 6th Congressional District was as blue 15 years ago, as it is red today. And today, it has the biggest red swing of any congressional district in the country. So the political change that we all went through, was most intense right here. And what I want to say, is that right here is where we need to fight back against the far-right, because a lot of what makes it into their national conversation starts in these places. And that's why Ohio is important politically, that's why we need to show up in these places. And that's why we really shouldn't write them off.

Because you know, what looks like such a red congressional district, not so long ago, when Obama was running, there was a 75,000 vote advantage for Obama in what is now the largest red swing congressional district. Okay, so these things might seem far gone, but they're really not, but they will be if we don't fight for them. And that's what I'm hoping to drive home in a lot of these places.

Joe Sudbay  

Well, thanks. I'm really glad you could come on our show today and talk about it. You're on Twitter at @heyjohnrussell. Check out The Holler. It's, it's great stuff. It's stuff you won't find anywhere else. Unfortunately, unfortunately, like John said, because of the way the media, so much of the media covers things, but keep up the great work, John. Keep in touch with us. And thanks for talking to us today. It was really... you got me all excited. Thank you.

John Russell  

Yeah, Joe, thank you for your show. Thanks to all the listeners out there. Fight on everybody. It's worth it, and I'm excited to be there with you.

Joe Sudbay  

Alright, good to talk to you, John. We'll be back in just a few minutes here on Sirius XM Progress.