At the end of the day, we tend to fight for those who still don’t have a voice, because it’s the right thing to do.
GROWING UP IN a family of labor activists set the stage for Ed Harkins, Local 13 (Philadelphia), to make his mark on local, state and national politics. Union activism is in his blood.
“It started before I was in the Boilermakers,” Harkins says. “I come from a building trades family that was active in politics. Even as a kid, I always had an interest in watching the news and reading about issues and politics.”
He’s passionate about Pennsylvania and the working men and women in union trades—something that has driven him to log thousands of hours of volunteer work over the years for state Democrats and the Local 13 state government affairs committee.
In a roundabout way, Harkins credits former President George W. Bush for ramping up his political involvement as an adult. “I went to vote in a primary in the spring of 2003, shortly after Iraq was invaded,” Harkins remembers. “And when I was leaving, this guy was handing out literature for the Democrats. I asked how I could help out.”
The Pennsylvania Democrats took him up on this offer and put him to work. They appointed Harkins to the position of Democratic committeeman. “It means you’re a liaison between the voters in your precinct and the party,” he explains.
He recalls one door-knocking adventure involving an older man, a Korean War vet, who was in serious trouble. The man had been receiving Social Security for about six years when the administration stopped payment. He’d lost his right to his retirement income due to an outstanding criminal charge from 30 years ago.
“He was going to lose his house,” Harkins says. To prevent that, he took the man to Allyson Schwartz’s office—the U.S. House member for the 13th District—and talked to one of her aides. Two weeks later the vet called Harkins to thank him for saving his home.
“It was the proudest moment in politics I’ve ever had,” Harkins says. “I haven’t been able to top that.”
Because he sees what activism can do, Harkins encourages union members political involvement. He admits to “badgering” union brother Dan Engle to run a write-in campaign for Roseto Borough Council the week before the 2017 November election (Engle won!). And for the upcoming November election, he encouraged Bill Monahan to run for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
An avid history buff, Harkins understands the principles behind different political theories. He saw what the country could do through the New Deal. He heard stories from his grandfather, a shipyard Boilermaker, and also from his dad.
Labor’s history is replete with individuals who were not satisfied with the status quo and believed progress for working people comes with tenacity and sacrifice. Ed is one of those people.
“All that knowledge is what got me involved in politics through the Boilermakers,” he says.
Harkins is active in LEAP in Washington, D.C. every year, slotting time to speak with every Pennsylvania lawmaker he can fit into his packed schedule.
“First time I went to LEAP, I felt I was around rock stars,” Harkins says. “We’re a small building trade union but we had—and still have—this immense talent in our government affairs department.”
Former L-13 BM-ST Martin Williams, now the National Coordinator of State Legislative Affairs, M.O.R.E. Work Investment Fund, says that if he could choose one word to describe Harkins, it would be “dedicated.”
“Labor’s history is replete with individuals who were not satisfied with the status quo and believed progress for working people comes with tenacity and sacrifice. Ed is one of those people,” says Williams. “Ed believes that every labor march, phone bank, rally, legislative meeting, candidate interview—no matter how big or small—is worth it to advance the Boilermakers and the labor movement. He is union through and through and we’re all better for it.”
Harkins’ activism has left a legacy in Pennsylvania and in the union. He encourages other union members to continue to fight for working people across the U.S.
“As Boilermakers, we’re often fighting as much for the non-union as for the people in unions,” he says. “At the end of the day, we tend to fight for those who still don’t have a voice, because it’s the right thing to do. Raising their wage and benefits packages puts our contractors on a more even keel, and puts less downward pressure on them to reduce our pay and benefits. It makes us stronger.”