Pittsburgh, PA– Like most families and communities in 2019 America, the United Steelworkers doesn’t relish talking politics. Many of the union’s 1.2 million members and retirees are enthusiastic about President Trump’s agenda, especially tariff protection for U.S. industries. And an equal number, it seems, oppose the president, despairing over the President’s rightwing policies and angry rhetoric. (Traditionally, unions in America have leaned Democrat.)
For the people who manage communications at the Pittsburgh-based union, the bitterness of the Trump era has prompted soul searching about how to promote better dialogues inside and outside the USW. “We should be talking about the things we all want: a safe community, good jobs, the chance to spend time with our families,” says Tony Montana, a senior communications official at the union.
When I covered the steel industry for the Wall Street Journal, Tony was my main USW contact. Since I’ve left the Journal, we’ve stayed in touch, meeting for lunch or coffee to chew the fat. After he watched Moundsville, (which you can rent for $3.99 here), he invited me and Dave to lunch. The three of us, and another union official named John Lepley, got sandwiches and arranged to screen the movie at USW headquarters in Pittsburgh. “I think your movie may be able to help avoid politics and address issues that really matter,” Tony told us.
Over two lunch breaks this week, a couple dozen USW officials showed up, in person and remotely, to watch Moundsville and talk the issues it raises. One official, who phoned in from Missouri, said she had “never seen anything like” Moundsville, one of my favorite compliments so far. Among the questions (and answers):
How can small towns in Appalachia and the Midwest recover? (It helps to have a college, or become the suburb of a big city.)
Can manufacturing return to the US? (Yes, via small, heavily automated shops with niche markets like Shutler cabinets, featured in the movie.)
How do the people we talked to in West Virginia feel about unions? (They still like them, mostly. There’s lots of nostalgia for the unionized factory days.)
How come the characters in Moundsville “don’t seem angry”? (Because we mainly asked them questions about themselves and the history of their town.)
What’s the best way to engage people on sensitive issues like immigration? (Ask people about how the issue affects them personally. “Tell me about your friends who are immigrants.”)
Are things better in the European Rust Belt? (Kind of. The social safety net is stronger. But those regions are still struggling.)
Making this movie — my first, Dave’s 11th — was an adventure. Another, largely unexpected, adventure has been developing the social mission around it. I didn’t expect Tony’s invitation but it delighted me. Moundsville is about people and the quality and texture of their lives, and those are things we should all be talking about.
John W. Miller