is the title I thought of while facing the very real possibility of spending the night in Allegheny County's fine modern hoosegow. Fortunately, even though I participated in some fairly serious civil disobedience, matters did not progress that far. But more on that later. I've been delinquent in giving regular updates of the labor fights going on in my hometown, and there is some serious catching up to do. Follow below the orange swirly thingy for a much delayed update!
So, I should start with an update to the action taken by the brave faith leaders of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network in February of this year. Before they sat down blocking the entrance of the US Steeltower which now is ground zero for the UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) corporate headquarters, I was given a couple of minutes to speak - this speech was caught on video by our allies in the Make it Our UPMC campaign, 32BJ of the SEIU. I have already linked to it in an earlier diary, so don't waste the bandwidth if you've already seen it!
When the case came before the magistrate on June 12 2014, PIIN and the SEIU had a good and rather boisterous crowd showing support for our faith leaders outside the courthouse. The judge seems to have stepped outside to see what was up, and when he returned to the courtroom, a fine of $500 for the entire group of protestors was levied, and no additional community service was required since "protesting against UPMC in itself constituted a community service." Not sure on the accuracy of the quote, but more can be read here. This was a victory in that our allies had their charges dismissed and UPMC suffered yet another PR black eye.
Not content with the massive showing in March, our SEIU leaders convinced the organizing committee to commit to another form of non-violent demonstration, a week long fast. Part of the reason I've been reluctant to blog about this part of our campaign was my inability to participate fully in the action, and partly because I had doubts about the effectiveness of such an action in todays America. The workers who joined fully in the fast have nothing but my deepest admiration, and the workers who took a day or two off to join them in fasting or otherwise providing comfort and company, are also heroes in my book. There was no way I could swing the time away from work at the time the action was planned, and health concerns would have surely made any extended fast out of the question. My doubts about the effectiveness of the Fast for Our Future were proven wrong, in that the fast still managed to energize the existing labor unions in Pittsburgh and our allies in the religious and faith community. What if any effect it had on UPMC management is open to question, since silence was the only sound coming from their PR department. That is what can happen when a movement seizes the moral high ground! Follow the links below for a more complete picture of this campaign. I'm generally speaking not an emotional man, but when I heard that Mary H. was having problems keeping her water down on day four of the fast, I was, well, I just don't know how to describe what I felt. When I saw her later that week she got the biggest hug I can give, and I'm sure I cried some - not much, but for me that is significant. (And probably another reason I've not written about this aspect of the campaign.) The fasters have made all the work I've done seem almost insignificant, though I haven't let that slow me down.
Fast for Our Future from the Make it Our UPMC blog.
City Paper article.
The month of May provided a bit of a breather for our campaign, at least from any sort of large organized demonstrations. I kept up my activity at work, and managed to get myself in a bit of a pickle, but that will be a topic for another post depending on how the situation turns out. I've got some lawyers and the NLRB on my side, and, as always, the truth. When all around you practice lies and deceit, the truth can be a radical weapon, especially when the liars balk at the point of having to perjure themselves in a legal setting!
Not content with fighting against the union busting UPMC management on the streets and in my workplace, I signed up to participate in the Members Political Organizers meeting in Harrisburg on July 23-24. The highlight of this event was the keynote speaker, Democratic candidate for PA Governor Tom Wolf. Most readers of Daily Kos may already know that current polls show incumbent Governor Tom Corbett (R) trailing Wolf so badly that the PA Governor's race is considered in the Democratic bag. The leadership of the SEIU feels that such confidence should not lull us into a false sense of security and rest easy for this election. So not only will we be putting our efforts into a GOTV campaign, we are going to be working hard to register Democrats that will be yes votes for Wolf in November. Tom Corbett hasn't conceded this race yet, and we cannot allow positive polls for our candidate allow voters to stay away from the polls. The damage Corbett has caused our state in just one term will take years to correct. And even if (when) Wolf is elected Governor, it is important that we work to increase the Democratic numbers in the PA State Legislature. We need to elect more and better Democrats, especially from the districts in the vast region of the state between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The SEIU membership can be a positive force to bring about this change. Boots on the ground doing the hard face to face and door to door canvassing can hopefully offset the 30 second media bites of television ads. We cannot afford to be complacent!
So this brings me, finally, to the action that allowed me to use the "Letter from a Pittsburgh Jail" click bait title. When my union organizer asked me if I was up for getting arrested for civil disobedience, I must admit that I had to think a minute before answering yes, with the provision that I had to check with my wife first. This was not the last time I would be given the opportunity to rethink the question and my answer, and I lived with a knot of fear in my stomach whenever doubts or valid concerns arose, even up to the very hour before the event, when I bagged all my personal belongings except for my drivers license and passed them over to my wife at the Mellon Square Park, where the rally started on 7/30/14. It was my turn to take one for the team. I was prepared to lose some freedom for the cause, with only a drivers license in my pocket and phone number written on my left forearm to call when released, perhaps the next day. Oh, yes, I also had a strip of red tape on each shoulder that identified me as one of the thirty people taking part in the civil disobedience.
I should also mention here that earlier in the day, a similar action was held on the Shadyside campus of UPMC in support of the six fired 32BJ janitors. Six protestors were arrested for refusing to leave UPMC property without speaking to the property manager who rebid the contract that lost these workers their good paying jobs. One of the arrestees was Rev. Wanless, a retired United Methodist minister and PIIN activist, who also sat with us in the afternoon action, thus managing to get arrested twice in one day while protesting UPMC!
The rally at Mellon Square Park was well attended, with guesstimates of between 350 to a thousand participants. The SEIU was well represented with SEIU HCPA, 32BJ, and all the organizers and Make it Our UPMC employees. Other unions were there to show their support, including but not limited to, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, United Steelworkers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Communication Workers of America, as well as the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network. Neal Bisno, president of SEIU HCPA, had a more complete list that he read to welcome those in attendance. After his opening remarks and cheerleading the Rev. Rodney Lyde of PIIN was left holding the mike, to ask of UPMC - "where is the love?", playing well on the PIIN campaign of "Love Thy Neighbor". Rev. Lyde got involved when one of his parishioners went to him with his concerns about losing his job over his efforts to bring the union into UPMC. That worker, a man I'm proud to call a friend and fellow organizer, Al Turner, was eventually fired by UPMC. The final guest "speaker" was Barbara Mathis, who got involved in our efforts sometime last year and was laid off just last month, with 23 years of experience, getting a severance package deal of $6132 if she kept her mouth shut! I used the quotes around speaker because Barbara is deaf and had to use an American Sign Language interpreter to deliver her very moving story to the crowd. After telling her story to the crowd, Barbara defiantly tore up the severance agreement, tossing pieces in the air before walking off to join our march.
Here are a few links telling the story -
After the speakers finished, Neil took over again and gave us our marching orders, telling everyone what was going to happen, and what signals to look for from the marshals that would allow the whole thing to go smoothly. And then we left Mellon Square Park, turned right on 6th Ave., then left onto Grant St, filling most of the block between 6th and 7th in front of the US Steeltower. The police cooperation was again crucial, blocking the rush hour traffic to allow us to march in the streets. The geography and roads in downtown Pittsburgh make any traffic tie up lead to virtual gridlock over a much wider area than one would expect. When we got into position, the marshals signaled for silence, and then everyone but the designated red taped protestors left the streets while we spread out across all four lanes now blocking traffic in both directions. We didn't have to sit for long, just until we were certain that we would be arrested, and we all got up together and walked to the opposite side of the street from the main body of the march. There we waited for far longer than we actually blocked traffic while the police keep the entire block of Grant St. closed while they arranged for enough paddy wagons to haul us away. In fact. the police even requested we sit down for a spell on a stone wall in the Strawberry Way alleyway.
So what happened next was we were all cuffed with the plastic zip-tie restraints before getting into the wagons. I was in the last load of protesters, and had no idea where we were ending up. But by this time we were in pretty good spirits, joking about the day, and some of the more seasoned activists reminiscing about previous actions in other cities. So when we were let out I was pleased to see we were not at the County Jail, but at the Zone 2 Pittsburgh Police Station in the Hill District - not far from downtown. Even more surprising was entering the station to see all my fellow red taped comrades milling about the main room, many holding their restraints in their now free hands. It seems the police were taking this all in stride, just another peaceful and well orchestrated Pittsburgh labor rally. Unfortunately, due to small wrists and large hands, I was unable to free myself from the restraints. A policeman was collecting our ID's six at a time, and I indicated which pocket held mine. He got it out and soon after another policeman with wire cutters asked who still needed to be cut free. The policeman gathering the ID's returned with a copy of six ID's on one sheet of paper, got our SSN, made sure our address was good, and that was it. So we waited outside on Centre Ave. waiting for organizers to show up and give us rides home. It was at this point I realized the mistake of leaving my stuff with my wife, instead of with the organizers. Live and learn, I suppose, but as painless as this exercise turned out, I have no illusions that I will be so lucky should I take an arrest again for the cause. I was home before 7:30 p.m., slightly saddened that my hopes of trading in a baloney sandwich on stale white bread for having to prepare dinner were shot to hell.
And lest I forget, I also did this for Jane Siegel, PhD. An energizing activist who was a leader in PIIN and a member of the Temple Sinai family of families, who died suddenly on 7/14/2014. She stood in for Rabbi Symons when the Fast for Our Future was broken as we made a symbolic circling of the US Steeltower. She couldn't be there in person, but I'm sure she was there in spirit.
Here are a few of the pictures my wife took with her iPhone 5C.