Seeking to be heard about strikes that started more than a month ago and seemed no nearer to being settled any time soon, striking Pittsburgh Post-Gazette employees from the newsroom as well as the production, advertising and distribution departments made a lot of noise Saturday evening outside of the Duquesne Club, Downtown.
Inside, Post-Gazette publisher and co-owner John Robinson Block was believed to be celebrating his wedding reception with his wife and guests. This during Light Up Night, Downtown Pittsburgh’s annual and crowded celebration of the upcoming holidays.
While trying to negotiate an end to the strike at two bargaining sessions with the company this week — the first such talks since the company declared an impasse and imposed conditions on the newsroom workers in 2020 — the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh widely disseminated a stylized “Save the Date” invitation for the public to show up outside the reception at the private club.
“Bring pots and pans to make noise and wear some outlandish wedding attire,” a guild email blast invited. “This situation is absurd. And the Blocks are frankly deluded if they think they can be the toast of the town while stiffing striking workers during the holiday season.”
When the rally started at 3:30 p.m., a crowd of about 75 people filled the sidewalks in front of the club and in front of the cemetery and church across Sixth Avenue, where stood a tall inflatable “Scabby” the rat anti-scab-worker mascot wearing a makeshift wedding veil.
As the crowd grew to about 100 people, including one in a Grinch costume, some did bang pans as well as drums, blew air horns as well as a trumpet, and sang and chanted, while union members and leaders offered arriving guests and passersby pamphlets about the workers’ situations.
It was peaceful but not at all quiet, as attendees included everyone from babies to people’s pups, who drew honks and waves from many passing drivers. As the sun set, longtime union activist Mike Stout led the gathering in a rendition of “Which Side Are You On?”
Speaking in support of the workers, the Rev. Vincent Kolb, pastor at the Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill, reminded the crowd that his was the church of the late Fred Rogers of the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” children’s television series. “I don’t think John Block is a very good neighbor, do you?” Kolb said.
“This is a moral fight; this is a just fight,” he added. “You deserve a living wage, health care and the ability to organize and to fight for what you need.”
He stressed the urgency for a negotiated resolution because journalism is important for a city’s health. “We need you to tell us the truth about what’s going on in the halls of power.”
Diane Stein agreed. “What’s happening at the PG affects everyone,” she said over the din after she arrived at the scene on the light-rail train from Dormont. She works as curriculum developer with the United Steelworkers Tony Mazzocchi Center and describes herself as a lifelong labor activist. But, “I’m also here because I care about local news.”
A couple of other local news outlets were on hand to cover the event, which was planned to be entirely legal, said Andrew Goldstein, the PG unit chairman of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh police visited the scene a couple of times, but there were no arrests or other trouble.
“This is the beauty of the First Amendment,” said Goldstein from the sidewalk. “I’m out here to just have a good time tonight.”
That, and “to get the attention of Block family,” he added. While nobody reported seeing Block, Goldstein said, “He was definitely in there,” in a club founded in 1873 and remembered as a gathering place for an earlier generation of wealthy business owners and industrialists often criticized for exploiting their workers.
If he could deliver a message directly inside, Goldstein said, it would be, “Let’s get this done. … All we want is to be treated fairly.”
At one point, two of the workers unveiled their own wedding cake, on which the icing read, “CongRATS John R. Block.” Security personnel declined the workers’ offer to personally deliver it to Block’s reception. So the protesters nibbled on it with coffee and apple cider and stomped their feet against the cold. The club’s front-door staff politely declined to comment.
Joe Jenkins joined the protest about the time he’d usually be heading to work at the PG’s Clinton plant to print the Sunday paper, which the PG has been outsourcing to the Butler Eagle. With a custom “Will work for healthcare” sign around his neck, Jenkins took a break from picketing at that plant, and scrounging wood for the strikers’ burn barrels, to try to add his voice. “Nobody wants to be out here, but you can only let the bully punch you in the mouth so many times.”
Pittsburgh Guild President Zack Tanner was warmed by the number of flyers that were carried into the club during the protest, which wrapped up just after 6 p.m. with a group photo in front of Scabby the rat and Tanner’s bullhorn-blasted promises of “We’ll be back.”
He said, “I think the energy here today was incredible.”
The guild reiterated that its demands to end the strike include restoring the health insurance for workers in production, advertising and distribution, who lost their health insurance as a result of management’s action effective Oct. 1, as well as undoing the unilateral changes to working conditions and reinstate conditions of the previously bargained Guild contract — it expired in 2017 — until a new agreement is reached.
Guild members went on strike on Oct. 18 on their own unfair labor practice charges, which it filed with the National Labor Relations Board, including bad-faith bargaining, illegal declaration of impasse, and illegal unilaterally implemented changes to working conditions. Those charges were heard by an administrative law judge in September and October, and a decision is expected early in 2023.
Twice this past week — on Monday and Thursday — the guild’s bargaining committee met with the company’s, consisting of attorney Richard Lowe — of the Nashville, Tenn., law firm King & Ballow — and human relations partner Carolyn Rice at the Omni William Penn Hotel. Also present was federal mediator Fulton Miklos.
And after both roughly four-hour sessions, Tanner and other guild members described the company as not bargaining in good faith and the talks as fruitless and frustrating. But the guild agreed to meet again on Dec. 6, the next date that Miklos is available, when it will present additional proposals.
In the meantime, the guild is working on other actions to move the company to work together to settle the strike, including building lists of people who pledge to cancel their subscriptions and/or to subscribe once the labor issues are settled.
He wasn’t making any lists, but Santa himself was protesting at the rally. Newsroom copy editor and page designer John Santa was wearing a full Santa Claus suit and beard and at one point dumped some lumps of “coals” on the sidewalk in front of the Duquesne Club.
Theatric? Yes. Fun? Also yes. Effective?
“I think they had to have heard us, and that’s the most important thing at this point,” Santa said.