Joseph Sabino Mistick: Labor on
Pittsburgh always has been known as a tough labor town. Workers' rights to fair pay and safe working conditions have been pursued with vigor and fervor since shortly after the days when the robber barons sent recruiters to the old country in search of strong backs.
The industrialists needed physical strength. But along with that came unexpectedly strong minds. Men could work like mules — 12-hour shifts for seven days and 24-hour shifts when they moved from daylight to night turn. But these men were not dumb.
Blood ran in the streets of Homestead in 1892 when Pinkerton thugs were hired to smash the workers' demands for fair pay and the management-labor relationship in this country was changed forever. The workers had developed a proper sense of ownership in the places where they worked themselves to the bone and they demanded a small piece of the prosperity they helped create.
The logic of early labor was simple. As the workers made more money for the industrialists, they knew that they deserved to make more money for their own families. As labor's strength grew, workers, managers and owners all did better in boom times.
Last week's vote by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) regarding the Allegheny County Port Authority contract showed that labor unions recognize that the principle holds true in reverse — that when employers have less, everyone must get by with less.
Now that money is tight, ATU workers agreed to millions of dollars of concessions, including a wage freeze and increased contributions. These givebacks, coupled with additional help from Allegheny County, the Regional Asset District and the commonwealth, will avert 560 layoffs and a crippling 35 percent service cut.
Union members voted to work for less so that all of their fellow workers could continue to work.
To those who blame our economic ills on organized labor, ignoring the fact that the demise of the great American middle class tracks the decline in union membership, the recent ATU workers' vote must be disconcerting. Organized labor in Pittsburgh has often suffered from bad information spread by those who stand to gain when workers suffer.
In an article by Bette McDevitt in the current issue of Pittsburgh Quarterly, Mike Dunleavy, IBEW business manager, Local 5, said, “We have not had a work stoppage in the 31 years I have been in the IBEW. We have language built into the contract that says we will not strike.”
And if there is a disagreement, both sides abide by the decision of the Council on Industrial Relations.
Pittsburgh is still a tough labor town where labor makes tough decisions.
But it's also a smart labor town.
Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).