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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New activist group One Pittsburgh takes the stage

Posted By on Wed, Jul 20, 2011 at 11:36 AM

It's been a long time since anyone's accused Pittsburgh of being a hotbed of activism. While other cities may host public demonstrations, engaged electorates, and multiple political parties, Pittsburgh has ... the Steelers, the Pirates, and the Penguins.

But a fledgling group, One Pittsburgh, is trying to give Pittsburghers a greater voice in the debate -- even if that means taking on the sports teams themselves. And it will be interesting to see what kind of player the new entity becomes.

One Pittsburgh is a campaign of Pittsburgh United, an advocacy group which has agitated for progressive legislation on the city level, like recently-passed regulations concerning diesel emissions at work sites.

In fact, it can be hard to tell where Pittsburgh United ends and One Pittsburgh begins. The groups have offices just down the hall from each other, and they boast the same cast of supporters -- a coalition of environmental, labor, and left-of-center faith-based organizations.

But while Pittsburgh United has focused largely on passing legislation on Grant Street, One Pittsburgh is about changing the entire political climate.

According to Kyndall Mason, one of a dozen people working full-time for the organization, One Pittsburgh was founded on "a desire to focus on corporate accountability."

One Pittsburgh routinely calls on corporations to "pay their fair share"; for example, the group recently held a protest outside PNC Park to denounce the Pirates for being incorporated in Delaware. (It's a common tax-avoidance strategy for companies headquartered in other states to be chartered in Delaware, which doesn't charge corporate income tax on them.) More recently, One Pittsburgh members spoke out at a recent community meeting to discuss UPMC's decision to abandon construction of a much-ballyhooed vaccine plant in Hazelwood. 

Issues like the "Delaware loophole"are abstract, and often only discussed by public-policy gurus (and the reporters who love them). But such arcane matters can have real-world effects by depriving governments of revenue -- and One Pittsburgh is seeking to make those connections clear. 

"We're trying to connect the dots for people," Mason says. "People are trying so hard just to get by that they don't have time to realize why it is so hard. For a lot of people, there's the feeling of 'These problems are so much bigger than me that I don't know what to do.'"

One Pittsburgh began taking root last year, says Barney Oursler of Pittsburgh United: "A couple unions decided they wanted to try and change the message about what's wrong with the economy and what can be done about it." Those unions were SEIU and UFCW -- which have advocated strongly on issues like a citywide prevailing-wage ordinance.

Union concerns about the overall political climate deepened early this year, as Republicans launched high-profile attacks on workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Washington D.C. But while union backing was the impetus for One Pittsburgh, Oursler says, other Pittsburgh United members saw the need  to shape not just new legislation, but a new political message. In too many debates about hard times and budget deficits, he says, "We're still blaming workers and poor people for wanting too much."

One Pittsburgh offers a countervailing persepctive: that times are hard because "Corporations are not paying their fair share in taxes; they're not paying good wages, and they're not creating the jobs they're promised." 

If the message is clear, the group itself can seem a bit amorphous: It's a standalone campaign, but relies heavily on outside sources for support. Unions are contributing personnel and non-monetary resources. (Mason, for example, is on loan from SEIU.) Other Pittsburgh United members are pitching in too -- and suggesting which issues and tactics to engage in. "The decisionmaking table involves all of those involved in Pittsburgh United," Oursler says. 

Given all that, it's no wonder there's been some speculation that One Pittsburgh might get caught up in local political battles. 

Pittsburgh United's previous initiatives, after all, were supported by city council's progressive faction, whose members oppose Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Mason herself recently worked on the re-election campaign of city council president Darlene Harris, who narrowly survived a mayoral-backed effort to oust her. Too, One Pittsburgh is constituted as a 501(c)4 entity -- a nonprofit that is allowed to engage in lobbying and other political activities.

So could One Pittsburgh become part of an emerging local coalition of progressive politicians, funders, and advocacy groups?

"I can't tell you what we'll be doing in six months," Mason says -- let alone "what we'll be doing when Ravenstahl's up for reelection" in 2013. Mason says the 501(c)4 designation is just a way to give the organization lattitude for conducting, say, a voter-registration campaign sometime down the road. When organizers discuss initiatives these days, she says, "Honestly, Ravenstahl's name doesn't come up."

Indeed, One Pittsburgh has focused almost entirely on players in the private sector, rather than politicians. And the group has mostly been concerned with movement-building: In early summer, it carried on door-knocking campaigns around the city, talking about the sour economy and recruiting those who want to do something about it.

"Our focus is to create a groundswell, building support at a grassroots level," Mason says. "We can't just have [elected officials] say to us, 'You're just a handful of activist whackos.'"

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