A tugboat pushing nine loaded coal barges chugged up the Ohio River, toward the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.
It eventually passed the McConway & Torley steel foundry along the Allegheny, likely headed for one of the few coal-fired power plants left in America.
Hold on to that imagery: It is part of the left-behind community of Americans whose struggles with the we-know-what’s-best-for-you elite will be central to the fight over our direction in the next presidential election.
Workers in the coal industry and at McConway & Torley are in the cross hairs of the progressive left. The left rails against McDonald’s for not paying a salary that sustains a family of four, as it simultaneously tries to snuff out the manufacturing base that provides well-paid middle-class jobs.
McConway & Torley has been in Pittsburgh for nearly 150 years. It is one of the few places in the city where laborers can earn enough to stay out of poverty, own a home and provide security for their families’ futures.
All of that is what both Democrats and Republicans are preaching in the run-up to the 2016 election; each candidate promises to rebuild the manufacturing base that evaporated from the industrial Northeast and Midwest and shifted overseas, where labor is cheaper.
Since the Civil War era, McConway & Torley has made couplers that link railroad cars, a once-deadly task performed manually by brakemen; what it produces here accounts for 60 percent of the North American market.
It’s the kind of stuff Americans once were great at making. It’s the kind of stuff that Democrats once championed, as proof they’re for "the working guy."
McConway & Torley employs 420 workers, 311 hourly and 109 salaried; of the salaried jobs, 43 are considered highly technical positions.
In addition, the foundry maintains a 60-percent employment rate for minorities.
That’s like manna from heaven to the left — except when it isn’t.
You see, on the same night that the city hosted a conference with Nordic countries about "social sustainability" (talking to each other), "urban fabric" (city living) and "carbon footprint transference" (walking), the health department held a public hearing in the once working-class, now upwardly-mobile neighborhood where the foundry sits.
That hearing was about a plan to reduce the foundry’s steel production by 77 percent. And that would take away the one thing everyone says they want to create through manufacturing — middle-class jobs.
The plant’s opponents basically want the foundry out of Pittsburgh, a city once known for a skilled labor force that "made stuff."
It is an aggressive effort by GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution), funded by the Heinz Endowments to the tune of $350,000 in 2014 — the same foundation funding the city’s conference with Nordic countries that local Democrat leaders hailed as the direction the region should go.
And it would leave behind the very workers that those Democrats claim they want to empower.
Have they become the party that preaches social justice and income equality, but then blames everyone else for the problems created by the newest progressive buzzwords and causes?
The same thing is happening in the coal industry.
Last week, 2,200 coal miners in this region woke up without jobs because of regulations imposed by the Obama administration.
This problem isn’t just found here in the Rust Belt. It’s found across the country, and it is proving to be the driving force in presidential politics.
It doesn’t affect just the white working class; minorities make up a majority of McConway & Torley’s workers, even as the nation’s minority unemployment rate is double that of whites.
The confluence of working-class jobs and leftist economics is part of a larger problem — the growing separation our country is experiencing between the elite and the working class. The candidate who understands this cultural gulf, who can connect the two sides instead of encouraging the divide, will win.
Leaders know how to achieve stability and to form alliances between opposing sides; they don’t just pit each side against the other.
It’s hard to strike such balances, even politically risky. But it is what great leaders do.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).