When labor activists called a Feb. 18 press conference outside the Mellon Arena, they intended to complain about the treatment of arena employees. Instead, though, representatives of two rival unions ended up denouncing each other.
As City Paper first reported this week, 400 arena workers — representing concession stand and other employees — are being told they have to reapply for their jobs later this year, when the Pittsburgh Penguins leave the building and move across the street to the new Consol Energy Center.
That decision worried employees, and a press conference was organized by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. But as reporters looked on, it quickly became apparent the workers had other problems as well.
Since last year, Workers United has been in a pitched battle with UNITE HERE, which has traditionally represented the arena workers. Last March, workers voted on whether to leave UNITE HERE and join Workers United. The results of that election have been disputed ever since … and both unions are now claiming to represent arena employees.
The matter has been under review by the National Labor Relations Board for roughly six months. But the dispute bubbled into public view during the Feb. 18 event, staged on Centre Avenue.
Representative Sam Williamson began criticizing Aramark's tactics in front of a small group of reporters and a dozen other labor activists, several were wearing the purple colors of the SEIU. But he had barely launched into his speech when about a dozen other workers — these wearing the red, white and black of UNITE HERE — joined the rally and began disrupting it.
"SEIU is raiding our members!" shouted a UNITE HERE representative, Jen Blatz.
"That is not true!" shouted a member of Workers United.
For the next 10 minutes, both sides bickered over who represented them, as the demonstration's original message was lost.
The NLRB is supposed to determine which union has the proper claim to representing workers, but the agency's assistant regional director, Mark Wirick, says, "The facts are not cut and dry." Among the issues is whether the election was conducted correctly: Among other things, UNITE HERE claims that the ballots were unclear. (A copy of the ballot, provided to City Paper by the SEIU, reads as follows: "Local 57 resolves to remain affiliated with the PA Joint Board; disaffiliate from UNITE HERE; authorize the affiliation of the Local with a new organization of former UNITE HERE affiliates; and support an affiliation with SEIU." A "yes" vote was to join the union.) Workers United members claim the vote was conducted appropriately.
It's unclear when a decision will be reached. For now, the clear winner is Aramark, which has refused to work with either union since last spring. "Both unions have conflicting claims," says Aramark spokesperson Kristine Grow.
And the company may see an opportunity in the discord between workers. During her previous interview with City Paper, Grow said that compelling workers to reapply for their jobs was standard procedure when Aramark moves to a new venue. At the time, she made no mention of the ongoing union dispute. After the demonstration, however, she said "what you saw at the press conference is very central to what is happening at Mellon Arena. Because of [the dispute] we've been unable to continue negotiations" with any union.
We'll have further details in next week's edition of City Paper.