Three men stood together along the berm of Sweeney Drive in Clinton early one evening last week and warmed themselves by a fire fed with donated wood. Dancing flames cast an orange glow over the darkened scene. Temperatures dipped to the 20s. Should the day’s frigid winds return, the men could seek protection in a nearby three-sided shed, but for now the air was still. One fewer point of pain to endure while on strike and standing around a burn barrel.
For these newspaper workers who’d been off their jobs at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for more than three months, there was little more to do at the picket they’d set up at the PG’s printing facility other than share stories of better days. “The way it used to be with the company,” as one worker said, “and all the fun times we had.”
Pressman Joe Jenkins, who like so many of his striking colleagues followed his father into a career at the PG, fondly recalled the newspaper’s former publisher, William Block Sr., who died in 2005.
“My dad said Mr. Block used to walk through the pressroom,” Jenkins said. “Years ago. He would come down, play cards. Guys were on lunch. He’d get in on a game of cards, you know? He loved the paper. He enjoyed being around the people who worked for him.”
Much has changed since then. When the PG’s new presses were ready for their first run in 2014, current PG publisher and co-owner John Robinson Block paid a visit to the Clinton facility. Jenkins said bosses told workers not to make eye contact with Block, and if they did so accidentally, they were to avert their eyes immediately.
“I said, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ ” Jenkins said.
The two other strikers standing nearby, mailers James “Hutchie” VanLandingham and Steve Engel, nodded their heads as the fire popped, sending a few embers into the cold air.
To outsiders, this picket line has the feel of a desolate, forgotten outpost. There’s not much color or activity out here. Winter has browned the hilly landscape. A few curled and dried leaves cling to trees lining one side of Sweeney Drive, which takes you past a few massive warehouse-like buildings that house printing businesses and shipping and packaging companies.
But this is the front line for the mailers, pressmen, advertising production workers and Teamster drivers who walked off the job on Oct. 6 of last year. They’re here day in and day out — 24/7, they say — as a persistent presence for those who, despite the strike, continue to work at the Post-Gazette facility.
They keep watch over a management team that has advertised their jobs and until recently refused to schedule bargaining sessions to settle the strike. The first session for the four production unions since the strike began is set for Wednesday. And that came about after the National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge’s ruling that agreed with the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh’s complaint that the Post-Gazette had not bargained in good faith and ordered it to negotiate.
Block Communications Inc., the parent company of the newspaper, announced it will appeal the decision.
“We see our bosses go in and out,” said striking mailer Patti Robostello. “We’re out here to let them know we’re still striking. That we still want our health care.”
(Health care is a key issue. The walkout was triggered by the PG’s parent company’s refusal to pay $19 in increased weekly premium costs for each worker.)
It was noon on a February day, and Robostello had just completed her morning picket shift. Before leaving she stepped into the red shelter that fellow mailer Joe Baker and Jenkins built in Baker’s garage. The two then moved it in pieces to the picket site, where it was reassembled.
“I had grandparents that worked here,” said Robostello. “My father worked here, and I’m here.”
She’s been a full-time employee for 25 years. Before that, she worked part time for the PG, beginning in 1983. “Who stays at a job that long?” she said. “We were all loyal to this company. We haven’t had a pay raise in 16 years. We are dedicated. We gave back raises just to work here. It was in our blood.”
Striking is tough, she said. Picketing in the cold four shifts a week, generally four or five hours at a time until relief arrives, and the loss of pay. “You struggle with it, try to make ends meet, pull money out of your savings to try to pay bills,” she said. “It’s difficult. We’d certainly like to go back to work, have the Blocks come to their senses and realize how many of us really are dedicated here.”
Nearby, two of her colleagues broke apart wooden pallets for the burn barrel. One was John Reagan, a mailer like his father and brother. He started his career with the PG as a part-time employee in 1975. Two years later, he was moved to full time.
“They had this thing called the ‘son’s list,’ ” he said. “It was for people who worked part time. You turned 18, they put you on the son’s list. Basically it was Saturday night because Saturday night was the big night. You needed tons of people [because] there was so much manual work. We’d start at 9:15, and we were there until 4 o’clock in the morning. It was organized chaos.”
Reagan remembers the 1992 strike that lasted eight months and ended with the Post-Gazette purchasing The Pittsburgh Press. That experience was much different than the current strike, he said. In ’92, news of the strike flooded the airways, and hundreds and sometimes thousands of union members and supporters joined rallies in front of the PG building on the Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown.
By contrast, he said, a TV news crew came out to the Clinton site once, shortly after the strike began. What media attention and public support the strike has generated focuses on the PG’s newsroom location on the North Shore, which is easier to access. Political leaders such as U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and now-U.S. Reps. Summer Lee and Chris Deluzio as well as city and county officials have visited there.
“It just seems like we’ve been forgotten about,” Reagan said.
Although the crowds and politicians are missing, the strikers do receive some support. Mancini Bakery employees brought firewood, loaves of bread and a donation card that is tacked up on a wall inside the shed. Workers at Tazmanian Freight Systems, a logistics and transportation company that occupies space in the building the PG leases for its presses and advertising production, circulation and human resources offices, brought pallets of wood. Knepper Press, located next to the PG facility, keeps its building doors open so the strikers can use its restrooms.
Sometimes the support comes in a surprisingly sweet manner.
“One gentleman came by — his wife works at a Dunkin’ Donuts, and he works somewhere down the road here,” said Robostello “He just stopped one day out of the clear blue and said, ‘I see you guys out here every day.’ He brought us doughnuts, coffee and hot chocolate. It was so kind of him. It’s amazing the kindness that you see out here.”
UPS and FedEx truck drivers and others honk their horns when driving by. Some stop to talk. But there’s not much traffic on Sweeney, so one striker occasionally posts himself a quarter of a mile east, at Sweeney’s intersection with busier Clinton Road.
“He said one day he had something like 75 beeps, people waving at him — and one guy driving by flipping him the bird,” Jenkins said. “He’s had people stop and give him money. He used the money to buy soup, so he was bringing soup in, heating it up on the fire so we could eat.”
When they first brought the shed there in October, PG management immediately called Findlay police to get it taken down. But the striking workers can dismantle it in 20 minutes, so it is a considered a temporary structure, and police said it can remain. Also, the shed is on Allegheny County property, keeping it on firmer legal ground. Findlay police just ask strikers to keep the burn barrel fire to a minimum height.
Mailer VanLandingham explained how the picket shifts work: Three to four people staff the first shift, two to three strikers take over the middle shift, and the overnight shift is normally two mailers, two pressmen and two drivers.
You’d think the overnight shifts would be a bore, and they do tend to be quiet, but they’re not without their charms.
“The only thing you hear down here at 3 o’clock in the morning are the coyotes,” Jenkins said. “They’re screaming. They’re going crazy. There’s a whole bunch of them running around here.”
“It’s mating season,” VanLandingham added. “And they’ve been very vocal.”
Many of those on the Clinton picket have seen each other for years. They’d often wave at each other on the job. But in the PG building pressmen, Teamsters and mailers were separated by walls, Engel said. There was little opportunity for the workers to form meaningful relationships. That’s no longer the case. Friendships have blossomed among those standing on Sweeney Drive and watching as a company that was once a pillar of support for workers and their families continues its attempts to function without them.
“We’ve formed our own little family here,” Robostello said. “We knew each other prior to this, but sitting here in this hut we’ve gotten to know each other quite well. It’s our little bonding time. We’re all in the same boat, without a job.”