The Rise of Unions In Pittsburgh

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Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is one of the most blue-collar cities in America, and has been a proud union town with many traditional trade-based professions. Even the city’s football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, is named after the union steelworkers who call Pittsburgh home.

You would think that because Pittsburgh is so union-friendly, most employers, even ones not in blue-collar fields, would be pro-union and pro-worker. Sadly, that is not the case.

While Pittsburgh, like most other parts of the country, saw a significant decline in unionization in recent decades, it’s been a leader in the massive resurgence of the labor movement in the U.S. we’ve seen across various sectors, from warehouse workers to baristas to rail workers, in recent years. Nationwide, Starbucks and Amazon are experiencing their own union waves: Their workers have had a very productive organizing year, with workers across the country going on strike demanding better working conditions, fairer pay, the addressing of scheduling issues, and more. Pittsburgh is no exception to this phenomenon. 

The Market Square Starbucks in Pittsburgh was one of the first to unionize when barista Tori Tambellini formed a union last year. Facing rising crime in the city, Tori Tambellini said she and her coworkers suffered from harassment and threats of violence from members of the public, concerns that were not addressed by Starbucks management. This negligence on the company’s part inspired these workers to unionize and address other concerns regarding low pay, irregular hours, and lack of healthcare benefits. 

Tori Tambellini and her coworker Kim Manfre were fired for “tardiness” just six weeks after Tori formed the union, despite being only nine minutes late. This is clearly a flimsy excuse to get rid of union leaders, a strategy that Starbucks has employed many times before. 

So far, eleven Starbucks locations in Pittsburgh have joined since the first successful union formed in Buffalo, New York, and this isn’t the only company outside the traditional trade-based field unionizing. From baristas and healthcare workers to librarians, Pittsburgh is slowly becoming more union-central.

Planned Parenthood workers in western Pennsylvania just secured their first contract after twenty months of negotiations. Their hourly wage has increased from $16 to $18, which will rise to $20 after three years of employment, and protections for parental leave policies have been established. Earlier this year, a collective bargaining agreement was ratified at the Carnegie Library Of Pittsburgh that covers about three hundred employees across nineteen branches. The agreement includes a raise in starting wages, raises for existing workers, and more paid holidays. Times are changing from the days when unions were only associated with trade-based professions, like steelworkers and mechanics.The unionization happening in Pittsburgh is just one piece of evidence that workers are joining forces, pushing back, and standing strong for however long it takes for corporations to get a grip. 

More recently, Pittsburgh’s newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has been forced to reckon with its own unionized workforce. The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents about one hundred newsroom employees, demanded that Post-Gazette executives come to the bargaining table or face the consequences of a walkout by union members. Workers ended up striking on October 18 in hopes of forcing the Post-Gazette to take the workers’ concerns seriously. Since then, the union’s very reasonable demands have included healthcare coverage and longstanding workplace concerns. These workers have been more than patient with their employers; despite winning a Pulitzer in 2019 and earning the Keystone Media News Organization of the Year this year, the Post-Gazette’s workers haven’t gotten a raise in fifteen years.

This strike has finally led to contract negotiations, and the first round began November 14. But, as a surprise to no one, the Post-Gazette presented a ridiculous offer that didn’t address the wage increases. Negotiations are still ongoing, and we hope the newspaper will do the right thing and provide their workers with the bare minimum wages and benefits they deserve.

Pittsburgh workers at Starbucks, the Post-Gazette, and places like Amazon and Apple should remember that there is strength in numbers. Wealthy CEOs and corporations may hold immense levels of wealth, but their wealth relies on their workers to create it, and working Americans who can afford their products. Unions work to everyone’s benefit, and people are stronger when they band together. 

It’s time that our society and government take union workers seriously. We must call on our elected officials to back workers’ unionization efforts and protect union workers in their negotiations. Individually, we can do our part in supporting Pittsburgh workers by amplifying union voices and calling out union-busting corporations. Unions make our nation, and Pittsburgh a better and more equal society, and they are worthy of our support. 

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