Pittsburgh Primary 2013: Union leaders defend Peduto against attack ads

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Labor supporters of mayoral candidate Bill Peduto on Thursday challenged claims made in an attack ad from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, while bringing new attention to a long-ago vote by the councilman impacting worker-friendly legislation.

Among other criticisms of his longtime foe Mr. Peduto, Mr. Ravenstahl's ad says the councilman "voted against living wage, hurting workers citywide." Union organizers favoring Mr. Peduto in the May 21 Democratic primary held a news conference Thursday calling that claim a "smear" and a "lie."

Mr. Ravenstahl isn't running for re-election but is head of a group known as Committee for a Better Pittsburgh that has been buying ads criticizing Mr. Peduto.

"It falls to those of us who remember our history to tell the truth," said Sam Williamson, assistant director of the area's largest property workers union, 32BJ SEIU of Western Pennsylvania. "In this city, it has been Bill Peduto over and over again standing up for working people."

The truth is complicated.

Mr. Peduto championed "prevailing wage" legislation council approved in 2010 over a veto by Mr. Ravenstahl, but joined with Tom Murphy's administration in virtually killing "living wage" legislation as one of his first votes after joining council in 2002.

Put simply, "living wages" tie pay on government-funded projects to the estimated wages necessary to raise a family. "Prevailing wages" on public projects are tied to pay scales unions negotiate with industry.

In 2001 city council approved living wages, but only after then-Mayor Murphy insisted that Allegheny County approve them too -- if not, he worried developers would take their projects outside the city limits. Some labor leaders agreed to Mr. Murphy's conditions, as far more of the jobs targeted by the law were in the county than the city anyway.

"Bill voted in support of that agreement. The understanding was not very public back then," said longtime labor organizer Barney Oursler, who was involved in the effort.

Allegheny County Council rejected its living wage bill in December 2001 and days before the city's law was due to take effect in April 2002, Mr. Murphy sought an amendment pushing off implementation until the county reversed course. Other labor supporters, such as then-councilmen Jim Ferlo and the late Bob O'Connor -- both foes of Mr. Murphy, who had just won re-election over Mr. O'Connor -- urged the city to press forward with the wage requirements anyway.

Mr. Peduto voted with the 5-4 council majority just two months after joining the body in approving Mr. Murphy's move that did not kill the living wage outright but effectively did so.

Mr. Peduto's reasoning was like that of the then-mayor: Without a county bill, it might hurt development of the Centre-Baum corridor of the East End. "Placing a condition then on the people that will be working in those buildings that they have to be paid a certain wage or else it doesn't happen is going to make it very difficult for me to make that sell," Mr. Peduto said in March 2002.

On Thursday Mr. Peduto's union supporters largely seem angered by the spirit of Mr. Ravenstahl's ad, since he was the one who chained his office doors when they were rallying for prevailing wage legislation in 2009 and then vetoed it on New Year's Eve. Mr. Peduto and others approved it over his opposition a couple months later and it is still law.

"Bill Peduto stood up to fight for working families," Mr. Williamson said. "For Mayor Ravenstahl to be funding an ad campaign that implies the opposite is simply untrue and unethical."

The mayor called his ad's claims "100% factual" in a Facebook comment Tuesday.

Other candidates in the May 21 primary include former state Auditor General Jack Wagner of Beechview, state Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District and Sheraden activist A.J. Richardson.

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Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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