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Downtown traffic a mess as protesters take to streets

Monday, March 3, 2014, 9:09 a.m.

Hundreds of protesters obstructed rush-hour traffic and forced the Port Authority of Allegheny County to juggle Downtown bus schedules for hours on Monday, and union organizers promised more action on Tuesday.

They're waging a vocal campaign against health care giant UPMC, which issued no statements about the disturbance.

Observers and Downtown workers ranged from sympathetic to cynical as they reshuffled workday routines to get around the sometimes-rowdy crowd, which Pittsburgh police estimated at 1,000 to 1,200 near its midday peak outside the U.S. Steel Tower. Organizers vowed to return but didn't specify plans.

“Really, just crossing the street is bad,” said Deja Francis, 21, of Highland Park, a Downtown worker who lamented the noise and traffic that overtook Grant Street from Sixth to Seventh avenues. “I think it's a little bit too much of a disturbance.”

Union activists who want better pay and unionization for UPMC service workers began assembling before 9 a.m., when they led a march from the Boulevard of the Allies to UPMC headquarters at U.S. Steel Tower.

They apparently broke the terms of their city event permit, which allows them to demonstrate through 6 p.m. Tuesday on public sidewalks outside U.S. Steel Tower. Union representatives repeatedly declined to answer questions for publication.

Police closed both northbound lanes of Grant Street at Sixth Avenue for about four hours as protesters spilled into the street. They kept the curbside lane closed until about 5 p.m., just after a last-minute rally by protesters who blocked both streets for about 10 minutes.

Protest organizers said an outpouring of demonstrators and the closure of an outdoor plaza at the tower forced their group into the roadway. Police made no arrests and wrote no citations against the activists, who included supporters from across Pennsylvania and other states.

The protest followed a smaller demonstration Thursday, when police cited nine activists for trespassing at the tower. The Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network helped lead that gathering.

“We're walking a fine line here trying to balance the First Amendment rights of the protesters with the right of everyone else who is not participating in the protest,” police spokeswoman Sonya Toler said. “As long as they comply when officers say they've got to get back on the sidewalk, there's no reason to cite them.”

Toler said police agreed to turn over the northbound curbside lane of Grant Street to demonstrators, an impromptu effort “to be accommodating” for the day. She said police expect the street will be fully open Tuesday.

Other city officials spotted at the event included Councilman Dan Gilman, who told the crowd he doesn't think Pittsburgh had seen “a labor protest like this in decades.” He wasn't aware of the event permit but did not believe the gathering was in violation of city code, which includes provisions for free speech, Gilman said later.

“If they asked me to move, I would respect their orders,” he said.

Meanwhile, some Port Authority bus riders experienced delays as long as 40 minutes as the transit agency moved routes around the demonstrators. A bus stop near Steel Plaza was out of service for much of the day.

“It's something we have to respond to at street level,” said Port Authority spokeswoman Heather Pharo, who reported a flurry of rider complaints via social media. She said the transit agency was awaiting word about additional demonstrations Tuesday.

“I will admit it was a big inconvenience,” said Mary Purser, 41, of Wilkinsburg, a Downtown worker who walked four blocks farther than usual because demonstrators blocked her bus stop. “You're supposed to be helping us little people.”

Mayor Bill Peduto released a written statement late in the afternoon, saying demonstrators “exercised their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble.” A message from his Twitter account read in part: “(C)ornerstone of free society is found in Constitutional right to assemble.”

“The mayor is concerned with public safety. If more people showed up to this peaceful event than what was expected, it's appropriate that policies are adapted so that things can be done peacefully,” said mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty. He said he knew of no permit violations.

Ben Schmitt, 43, of Edgewood said a Port Authority bus delivered him about 20 minutes late for work. But he had no gripes.

“If I'm 20 minutes late for work, I'm OK with that if it's for the greater good,” said Schmitt, who works in nearby Gulf Tower. “It's a minor inconvenience for me.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or




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