Recent campaigns helping Pittsburgh unions find their footing
November 30, 2014 12:00 AM
John Potter, 82, is a security guard at the Fragasso Building, Downtown, who is advocating for a union.
By Ann Belser / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh’s union past has become the foundation of future unionization.
Over the last two years, with the very public organizing drives being conducted at UPMC and the Rivers Casino, other drives have taken hold, including the unionization of adjunct professors at Duquesne, Point Park and Robert Morris universities and security guards at Downtown office buildings.
Even the staff at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum is pushing for a union.
“The beautiful thing about Pittsburgh is we understand we are one community,” said Maria Somma, an organizer with the United Steelworkers. “We will have university professors supporting the fast-food workers and we will have fast-food workers supporting university professors.”
It’s a city with a strong union history, and some of the infrastructure in place here — such as the international headquarters of the United Steelworkers — makes it easier to organize in Pittsburgh. Union leaders said workers in the region are already aware of the power of unions and the Steelworkers headquarters provides readily available meeting space.
John Potter is one of the security guards fighting for a change, but in Mr. Potter’s case, his advocacy is more for others than for himself.
Mr. Potter, 82, of North Braddock has retired from more careers than other people have jobs in their lifetime. He was a military police officer in the Army who served in Korea, Vietnam and Germany. He retired from the military and worked for the Ford Motor Co. as an auditor for 22 years, retired and opened a series of variety stores. He sold those and has been working as a security guard for the last 10 years.
While he receives medical benefits through the Veterans Administration, he said, most of his fellow security guards do not have health care or job security. They don’t even get to keep vacation time earned with a previous contractor in cases when buildings change security firms but keep the same workers.
Sam Williamson, district director of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, said the union is working to organize about 1,000 security guards in Downtown, South Oakland in the Pittsburgh Technology Center, at the SouthSide Works and in the western suburbs. The guards are employed by security companies that contract with local building owners to provide security.
The local previously organized building janitors, which is why it has a “BJ” at the end of its name. The janitors, who work for cleaning companies that contract to maintain office buildings, are all represented by the same union that bargains with the companies for a single contract. Now the 2,200 unionized janitors make $16.30 an hour, while building guards earn $8 to $9 generally.
“When you look at Pittsburgh, UPMC has gotten a lot of attention, but there’s more organizing going on in Pittsburgh than there has been in decades,” Mr. Williamson said.
Union representation has not been recognized by all of the companies that provide security, but Mr. Williamson said he is hopeful he can get them all on board and start negotiations in the next couple of months.
Some businesses are harder to organize than others. SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania and UPMC have been before the National Labor Relations Board repeatedly. In February 2013, the health care provider settled 80 charges of unfair labor practices with the union, only to be charged again in April. After a full trial before the NLRB, an administrative law judge ordered the hospital to reinstate workers who had been involved in the unionization effort and fired.
UPMC plans to appeal.
While UPMC is resisting unionization efforts, Point Park University has split on its reaction to organizing efforts. The university vociferously fought the organization of its full-time faculty. It has been more than a decade since the Point Park professors voted to join the News Guild and still the university will not recognize the union, a matter that has been tied up in court ever since.
However in the last year, the Steelworkers started representing the Point Park adjunct faculty and the school is now in negotiations with that union.
Richard Trumka — president of the AFL-CIO, who grew up in Nemacolin, Greene County, and worked as a coal miner — said Pittsburgh is the natural place for unionization to restart.
“It’s a worker-friendly city,” he said.
The Homestead Steel strikes of 1892, which included the shooting deaths of both strikers and Pinkerton guards, galvanized the union movement in the region.
The success of the Janitors for Justice movement in the beginning of this century, with the organization of the building cleaners in Downtown, has helped reinforce that spirit.
“In the labor community, Pittsburgh is getting a lot of attention,” Ms. Somma said. “There are workers who are seeing the value of organization.”
Now service workers in industries that had never been unionized are calling for “$15 and a union,” which means they want to be paid $15 an hour and have union representation.
“The economic downturn in 2008 had everyone scared and employers took advantage of that time to take away and to cut away every kind of pay and benefits packages to the bone,” Ms. Somma said. “Now with the economy turning around and employers making money again, they are still maintaining those cuts. Workers now feel there is no other option but to unionize and protect what they have.”
Kyndall Mason, a spokesperson for One Pittsburgh, an workers advocacy group started by Pittsburgh United and funded in part by the SEIU, said the organization of the fast-food workers whose fight for union representation will include a one-day strike called for next week has led to other workers approaching the union for representation, including workers at some of the local dollar stores.
The fast-food workers are part of a larger, national movement that is advocating for workers and to raise the minimum wage.
Mrs. Mason said many workers in other industries are reluctant to fight for a union for fear of losing their jobs, but fast-food workers are paid at or near the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, mostly work part-time so they do not receive any benefits and have no protection from being fired for any reason.
“The reality of working in fast food is you are completely replaceable,” Mrs. Mason said. “What do you really have to lose then?”
When workers do lose their jobs over union activities, she said, they tend to get them back if the union walks into the manager’s office. “We fight to get their jobs back,” Mr. Trumka, from the AFL-CIO, said.
“It’s not unusual and not surprising at all that Pittsburgh would be a place where we would start organizing,” he said. “Those adjunct professors, they have to get food stamps to get by on, and the fast-food workers, too.”
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