An electoral wave has been sweeping across Allegheny County politics in recent years. It’s not red nor blue but purple for the Service Employees International Union.
After helping elect its picks to Pittsburgh City Council, the state House and the Pittsburgh mayoralty, SEIU could notch the biggest victory yet of an endorsed candidate if state Rep. Sara Innamorato wins Tuesday’s Democratic primary for county executive, the highest office in Pennsylvania’s second-largest county.
The union has woven itself into the region’s ascendant progressive movement, with its vast resources helping provide an opposing force to a class of politicians that’s often supported by the more conservative building trades unions and that came of age when steel mills were still humming.
SEIU’s growing political muscle — through its 32BJ local, which represents security guards, custodians and dining workers, and the health care division that has long sought to expand into UPMC — has tracked with regional shifts in employment. Among the largest occupations in the Pittsburgh area are now home health/personal care aides, registered nurses and fast food/counter workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With a home base in Pittsburgh, it remains to be seen whether the movement can secure the plurality likely needed to win in the crowded county executive primary, where two in three votes are typically from the suburbs. U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, who refers to Innamorato as her “sister rep” thanks to their shared time in Harrisburg, won the Allegheny County part of the suburb-heavy 12th Congressional District in last year’s Democratic primary by 4.5 points, or roughly 5,000 votes.
Gabriel Winant, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago who wrote a book on Pittsburgh’s move to an “eds and meds” economy, told the Union Progress that it’s only natural for workers who have powered major economic change to seek a political voice — and that has received some pushback.
“It sometimes generates the reaction of ‘stay in your place. You’re supposed to be quietly serving the rest of us,’” he said. “The ways that service workers’ collective interests are secured through collective action, it’s not identical to how it worked for steelworkers. … Workers have to organize politically to get power that can shape their working conditions, but that power only works if it represents a kind of common, public interest.”
The early days
It wasn’t long ago that pleas from service worker unions would literally disappear into thin air.
Local developer Walnut Capital approached the city in 2007 for approval on a multimillion-dollar tax package to help fuel its Bakery Square development. It included a hotel that would theoretically be subject to a 1999 ordinance requiring city-financed hospitality projects to not fight unions.
But lawyers for then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority found a loophole by placing the hotel in the land’s “air rights,” meaning it wouldn’t be subject to the ordinance.
Lobbying led by Sam Williamson — who was then at the hotel workers union but who would join SEIU 32BJ in 2011 and become the union’s top regional official in 2014 — ultimately did not pay off. City Council passed the tax package by a 7-1 vote.
Williamson told the Union Progress that several unions and community organizations came together to fight back and create what would become the Pittsburgh United coalition. But he added, “We weren’t actually winning initially,” and, “Our members realized we needed to do more organizing and find ways to change that.”
When Ravenstahl ran for reelection in 2013, SEIU 32BJ decided to throw its support behind a two-term progressive councilor from the East End named Bill Peduto. It was among the top donors to Peduto’s ultimately successful campaign, sending him $25,000.
He later nominated Williamson as a board member of the URA, the city economic development agency that had stymied him years earlier. Williamson joined the board in 2017 and chaired it from 2019-22.
“I think it’s a symbol of how our members, and workers like them, went from being essentially invisible and hardly ever listened to and overlooked when it came to making important decisions about development across the region,” Williamson said, “to having worker voices and worker concerns be central to those decisions.”
Peduto did not respond to a request for comment.
Progressive surge takes off
The progressive movement has surged in big cities across the country, including Pittsburgh, where generational changes in elected leaders have taken place in recent years.
Darlene Harris had represented Pittsburgh City Council’s 1st District for 13 years, in her well-known eclectic style, when she again ran for reelection in 2019. After not supporting SEIU 32BJ priorities such as establishing paid sick days or a tax hike to support affordable housing, she faced her third-straight challenge from Bobby Wilson — a progressive North Sider and medical researcher.
Harris told the Union Progress that SEIU 32BJ began “pulling in money galore.” It spent more than $50,000 to help Wilson on top of directly sending his campaign $10,000. SEIU Healthcare made a $2,500 contribution to his campaign.
Wilson ultimately won the race by nearly 14 points, besting Harris 56% to 33%. Harris points to not only Williamson but also foe Peduto for her loss.
“It just shocked me that a union would get so involved,” she said. “I don’t just blame the union, but I blame Peduto and Williamson. As far as I am concerned, he [Williamson] is taking advantage of the employees.”
Wilson told the Union Progress that SEIU 32BJ members helped him with door knocking and reaching voters. One worker who Wilson met would take two buses to travel from McKeesport and knock doors for him.
“The workers in the city of Pittsburgh, when they organized themselves to elevate their voice, and for them to see a partner in me in how they want their voices heard, it means the world to me,” Wilson said.
Wilson added that he thinks getting more involved in the community, and securing support from local organizations, also helped him succeed in 2019. He’s on the ballot again this year.
“When the voters see you are working hard beside the support you have, whether it’s Democrats, the firefighters or 32BJ, you get into more conversations of why they are supporting you,” he said. “I could get into more conversations of why I am supporting workers. That makes the candidate relevant to that person, that voter. I felt I was more equipped to know what working families in Pittsburgh need.”
Another battle on the North Side would take place a year later, in the 2020 Democratic primary for the 20th state House District.
Emily Kinkead, a progressive lawyer, was taking on incumbent Adam Ravenstahl — brother of a former Pittsburgh mayor and member of a powerful political family.
After Ravenstahl voted in favor of a bill requiring construction companies to check the Social Security numbers of employees, SEIU 32BJ stepped into the race and spent $52,000 to help Kinkead, who ultimately defeated Ravenstahl by almost 11 points, 55% to 45%.
Kinkead told the Union Progress that support from SEIU 32BJ was crucial during her first race, while she was running as a relatively unknown candidate.
“In 2020, they really put me on the map in a lot of ways. I didn’t get any other traditional union support,” she said. “There were very few elected officials who endorsed me or acknowledged me when I was at events. I expected that going against an incumbent. It meant a lot.”
Kinkead added that SEIU does more than just give money, which can make a major difference in a campaign, but also gets its members to volunteer to go out and work for candidates, knocking on doors and passing out campaign literature.
“You get this wave of purple on the weekends, so you get this great work,” she said. “They really put boots on the ground in addition to the money they give candidates.”
That support does not come easy, as she said the union has “a really intensive interview process” before making endorsements.
“They vetted me to be sure that we share values and the policies that I want to work for they support,” she said. “You have to prove yourself before you win their support.
“They are really developing a ground game and a grassroots movement behind the candidates that they identify to support.”
Ravenstahl declined to comment.
In both races, Williamson said the union was working to “hold politicians accountable to their constituents.” He also said the union believes that being an ally of labor means doing “everything within your power to use your elected office, and the power that comes along with it, to help grow the labor movement and not just maintain and support the status quo.”
Although SEIU gained a direct voice on projects passing through the URA, the 2018 approval of a new UPMC medical facility showed the limits of its reach in city government at the time — and that not all of its locals agreed on how to approach the situation.
UPMC had developed plans to augment Mercy Hospital in Uptown with a new vision and rehabilitation center, which opened earlier this month to patients, and needed approval from both City Council and the City Planning Commission to proceed. The commission recommended negotiating a community benefits agreement — potentially sizable pledges and investments agreed to as part of the development deal.
SEIU 32BJ remained largely mum in public, but SEIU Healthcare and other partners pushed for their interests to be addressed in the potential agreement, namely wage increases and allowing workers to unionize.
Peduto said at the time that SEIU Healthcare was “holding a hospital hostage” and “to attack the council members and my office is not a way to get something done.”
The final agreement included items such as developing an addiction medicine specialty clinic and growing workforce development programs, but it left out the asks of SEIU Healthcare and its allies. That touched off anger that would later come back to bite Peduto when he asked Democratic voters three years later to grant him a third term.
Katrina Rectenwald, a nurse at Allegheny General Hospital who also sits on the SEIU Healthcare executive board, told the Union Progress that union members realized around 2018 that “a way to really impact politics is to have a voice in politics.”
“Quite frankly, our workplaces go hand in hand with policy,” she said. “If we want to see something change, we have to advocate for it to change. So we need to be the voice that’s out there, and sometimes it takes money and resources and speaking to elected officials to make those changes happen.”
SEIU 32BJ decided to remain behind the incumbent mayor during his reelection bid, Williamson said, because he’d “done more than anybody we’d ever seen in this city to support our members and other workers like them.”
SEIU Healthcare and other progressive organizations decided to go in another direction, directly citing the 2018 UPMC Mercy disappointment, and backed Ed Gainey, who was then representing parts of Pittsburgh’s East End in the state House. It played a leading role in the campaign, with two top union officials serving as co-chairs — Political Director Silas Russell and Lisa Frank, the executive vice president for strategic campaigns.
Two divisions of the same union ended up running a messaging war against each other: 32BJ sent $100,000 to a committee called Good Jobs Pittsburgh for pro-Peduto materials, while Healthcare-related entities gave $354,000 to a committee named Allegheny County Justice for All to support Gainey.
Gainey ultimately won the race by seven points, 46% to 39% after sapping much of Peduto’s support among East End voters.
As Gainey prepared to move into the City-County Building, he’d need help standing up his mayoralty. SEIU Healthcare again occupied key positions — Russell as transition co-chair and Frank as transition adviser. Frank later joined city government as chief operating and administrative officer, and Maria Montaño, a former SEIU Healthcare communications specialist, serves as the mayor’s press secretary.
As the administration grappled with how to move forward on one of its key campaign promises, getting powerful nonprofits to contribute more to the city’s coffers, SEIU Healthcare officials appeared to be involved in the negotiations regarding UPMC.
KDKA-TV reported last month that Russell helped draft talking points for the mayor ahead of a key meeting, including that “you need them to commit to a fair election arrangement with SEIU to bring to an end the long and contentious dispute between UPMC and its front-line workers.”
Russell said SEIU Healthcare holds “dearly that every hospital worker has the right to form a union,” and “we advocate and call on elected officials at every level to stand with workers, to support workers who want to form unions.”
The union might receive another key slot in the city bureaucracy in the form of Russell joining the nine-member Planning Commission, which would give him the ability to directly vote up or down on future development projects.
Russell said the mayor’s office asked whether he’d be interested in serving on the commission, and he was “excited” to say yes. If confirmed to the commission, he’d seek to foster “good, affordable, sustainable, transit-oriented planning and development.”
Theresa Kail-Smith, the president of City Council, said last month that she was holding the nomination, pending a review by the State Ethics Commission. Montaño did not respond to a request for comment.
County executive primary
SEIU and the progressive movement now has set its eyes toward the county courthouse and Tuesday’s Democratic primary for county executive.
The stakes are high, given that the executive can play a major role in setting the county government’s agenda on issues such as air quality, property taxes and the county jail; proposes the county’s $1 billion budget; and fills seats on boards and commissions. The current county executive is Rich Fitzgerald, a term-limited Democrat who will complete his third and final term at the end of this year.
SEIU 32BJ and Healthcare — as well as its 668 local, which represents some county workers — are all on board with Innamorato. They have collectively spent more than $360,000 to support the candidate, who was first elected to the state House in 2018, either on contributions directly to her campaign or independently prepared materials.
Not all unions are behind Innamorato — the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council voted to endorse John Weinstein, the longtime county treasurer.
Rectenwald, the nurse at Allegheny General, said Innamorato has been a longtime supporter of health care workers and others in the service industry.
“When West Penn organized and got their union, she sent them a letter congratulating them,” she said. “She has been supportive of health care workers every single step of the way and has never backed down or wavered in those decisions.”
Innamorato is the only candidate in the race, Williamson said Saturday, who is “willing to actually get creative about how to use the power of her office to help transform the economy in positive ways for working people.”
Williamson added that there is still a “very, very, very long way to go” to get more victories for workers. He then headed back to the SEIU office in Wilkinsburg, where members were gathering to knock a few last doors for Innamorato.