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Local unions endorse Allegheny County executive candidate Joe Rockey

Jun 06, 2023

Joe Rockey, the Republican candidate for Allegheny County Executive, has picked up the endorsement of one of the region's more potent labor groups: the Pennsylvania District Council of the Laborers International Union of North America.

The move was not unexpected — the Laborers have backed GOP candidates in previous high-profile races. But the union has one of the largest wallets in the region, and Rockey lost no time in citing its support of his bipartisan appeal in a heavily Democratic county where he is seeking to run as a moderate against progressive Democrat Sara Innamorato.

"Joe Rockey is without question the person for the job," said Phil Ameris, who serves as the president of the Western Pennsylvania Laborers District Council. "We must elect a candidate who is qualified, has the knowledge on how to move Allegheny County forward and who understands that ... extreme political views will only cause division."

Rockey, a retired PNC Bank executive who touts working-class roots, welcomed the endorsement by saying his father and father-in-law, both union members, "are looking down with such great pride that the laborers are standing behind Joe Rockey for county executive."

He thanked the union "for the honor they’ve given me to say that I am backed by labor."

"This election is about the future," he added. "It's about jobs in western Pennsylvania, the kind of jobs the laborers offer."

The endorsement was made by two Laborers locals, 373 and 1058, that between them represent 7,000 workers. Of those, Ameris said roughly 1,000 work for county government itself.

"We want to be at the table" with a Rockey administration, he said, though he said the union didn't have specific contractual asks for its members.

The Innamorato campaign responded with a statement contending that "Sara is the pro-union candidate for Allegheny County Executive — she has shown up on picket lines for carpenters, Teamsters, teachers, UPMC workers, painters, and steelworkers." It also touted her support of labor rights in the state House of Representatives and her plan to create a county office to help enforce prevailing wage laws and equal-pay standards. Her campaign said she would work with labor to make "Allegheny County the most pro-union county in the country."

Unions generally support Democrats, and Innamorato doesn't lack labor allies of her own. The most notable is SEIU, whose locals also include county employees along with health care workers and building custodians, and which provided six-digit sums and other support for her Democratic primary win. Innamorato has been an ally of labor in Harrisburg, though she was one of only two Allegheny County Democrats to oppose a massive tax subsidy for a hydrogen hub last fall.

And the Laborers can make a powerful ally. The Pittsburgh-based local supported failed Democratic county executive candidate John Weinstein with $110,000 between last fall and early 2023, campaign records show: Other Laborers’ groups added another $75,000 earlier this year.

On Thursday, Ameris pledged the union "will be a significant financial supporter" of Rockey.

In the same ballpark as it was for Weinstein?

"Significant," Ameris answered.

The Laborers have endorsed Republicans before, backing Carrie DelRosso's successful 2020 bid to topple state House Democratic leader Frank Dermody, as well as Gov. Tom Corbett's failed 2014 reelection campaign, and the 2016 campaign by GOP attorney general hopeful John Rafferty.

Laborers union members include workers employed in the fossil-fuel sector, and Ameris said Innamorato's desire to ban fracking within county limits "absolutely" played a role in the union's decision not to endorse her.

Ironically, the candidate backed by the union in the Democratic primary, John Weinstein, signaled during a debate that he, too, would support such a ban, later explaining to WESA that opportunities to drill more wells in the area were very limited.

But Rockey said that Innamorato "has made it very clear she will ban fracking. Fracking is a competitive advantage for western Pennsylvania, and it is good for the environment for western Pennsylvania natural gas to be used to make product, as opposed to coal-fired plants in China."

Rockey has pledged to uphold and support prevailing wage laws, which generally require government contractors to pay union scale to their employees — a crucial issue for unions. And he told reporters that his agenda is "about creating jobs. It's about bringing business and industry to western Pennsylvania and having … construction of those plants be done by union labor and to have union labor in those facilities."

But Rockey was more tentative on other issues, such as a recently passed county council ordinance to raise the wages of county employees to a minimum of $20 an hour by 2026. Rockey noted that the fate of that proposal "will be decided long before I’m elected. I don't really have an opinion [and] haven't spent any time on the topic." While he said there were "issues" relating to how the county would cover the cost of higher wages, he added: "I do not stand in the way of any person making more money than they make today."

Other Republicans, including former Congressman Tim Murphy, have been able to secure at least some measure of union support by embracing prevailing wage rules and delivering on pocketbook issues, even if they remain on the outs with the union movement as a whole. Political insiders say it's possible that other unions with workers in the fracking industry — like the Steamfitters, another free-spending labor group that backed Weinstein this spring — might also back Rockey's bid.

That's certainly the hope of Republican Committee of Allegheny County Chair Sam DeMarco, who was on hand for the Laborers announcement. He said he hoped it would inspire other unions to break with Democrats in light of what he called an "increasingly leftward lurch."

The Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, the region's umbrella union group, will hold a general election endorsement later this summer: The council gave its backing to Weinstein in the Democratic primary.