Thursday, August 28, 2014

Rivers Casino workers continue fight for union

Posted By on Thu, Aug 28, 2014 at 2:56 PM

Employees at the Rivers Casino say their employer has been cutting its workers' hours to avoid providing them with health insurance. Under the Affordable Care Act, employees working 30 hours or more must receive health insurance, but those at a protest outside of the casino earlier today say management has been trying to skirt the requirement.

"Not only are they not giving workers enough hours to qualify for healthcare, those who do work 30 hours, they're reducing their hours so they don't qualify," said Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council.

Picketing outside of the Rivers Casino
  • Picketing outside of the Rivers Casino

A coalition of workers known as the Steel City Casino Workers Council has been fighting to unionize casino employees for more than a year now with the help of Unite Here, a North American labor union. Members of the council believe unionizing is the best way to ensure their hours aren't cut and to increase their wages.

"We're fighting for a fair process," said Nicole Gallagher, a casino cocktail server. "Personally, not having the protection of a union, I've been subjected to terrible intimidation."

The council claims casino management has intimidated and even fired employees to prevent them from forming a union. Last year Unite Here filed more than 30 charges of unfair labor practices against the Rivers Casino's owners but since then the casino has agreed to post flyers notifying employees of their right to unionize.

“Rivers Casino is proud to have been voted a ‘2014 Best Places to Work’ by our Team Members, and we respect their rights to choose whether to be represented by a union," casino spokesperson Jack Horner said in a statement. "So far, our Team Members have chosen to remain independent.”

The casino did not respond to questions about the alleged intimidation. But Unite Here representative Jon Scolnik says the intimidation has continued.

"What we want is for the casino to play fair," Scolnik said "They've violated labor laws and until they play fair we're going to keep doing this."

The workers were joined by employees at a casino in Philadelphia, owned in part by one of the partners in the Pittsburgh casino, who also complained of unfair treatment of workers. Union workers throughout Pittsburgh representing organizations like the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union were also there to show support.

"All of those unfair labor practices corporations are pushing to keep people from earning a living need to stop," said Tina Schreckengost, a union employee at Giant Eagle who came out to support the casino workers.

The Moth at the Byham

Posted By on Thu, Aug 28, 2014 at 10:30 AM

At last night’s big annual The Moth Mainstage show, writer Dan Kennedy quipped that hosting the series had actually expanded his emotional range; as a suburban Southern California youth, he said, he’d grown up stuck entirely between “That’s awesome, dude” and “Dude, that kind of sucks.”

Kate Tellers
  • Kate Tellers
Making us feel something is a goal of any good art. But the directness of The Moth’s approach is particularly disarming, and effective. As listeners of the radio show or podcast — or attendees at Pittsburgh’s monthly Moth StorySLAMs — know, the idea is simply people telling true stories on stage, without notes. At its best, it feels nearly as informal as listening to a friend over drinks (even if most of those friends, as was the case last night, are professional performers).

Last night’s sold-out show (the sixth annual Moth spectacular here, co-presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures) traversed as much emotional geography as any. The theme was “Don’t Look Back.”

Cole Kazdin, an Allderdice grad who’s now an Emmy-winning TV-news producer in Los Angeles, recalled that period in her life when a bizarre cheerleading accident left her with a massive concussion and both short- and long-term amnesia. (Technically, it was a “cheerleading” accident: She was playing a cheerleader in a film spoof and was thrown in the air, but not caught.) Kazdin skillfully tread the line between the terror of forgetting everything about yourself and the humor inherent therein — all mitigated, it should be said, by the fact that we knew she’d fully recovered. Best detail: The pile of sticky notes she left by her bed, each with a fact about herself she’d written down (“You are a vegetarian”) in hopes of reconstructing her memory: “It still wasn’t me. It was just information filling an empty space.”

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Adjunct-unionization campaign moves on to Robert Morris University

Posted By on Mon, Aug 25, 2014 at 4:49 PM

The United Steelworkers, fresh from its successful bid to organize part-time faculty at Point Park University, has a new target in its sights: Robert Morris University.

Adjuncts at school's the Moon Township campus have begun circulating union cards to their colleagues, and plan to step up the campaign in the days ahead.

Teaching as an adjunct is "a hopeless situation," says James Talerico, a Robert Morris adjunct and member of the union organizing committee. "And that's why we're hoping the union can help."

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Sneak Preview of Doc Ellis documentary, on Aug. 26

Posted By on Fri, Aug 22, 2014 at 4:27 PM

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It's unquestionably the most infamous no-hitter in baseball history — the one that Pittsburgh Pirates Doc Ellis pitched while high on LSD on June 12, 1970.

Learn about this unique athletic feat and more about the life of Ellis in the new documentary film, No No: A Dockumentary. Catch a sneak preview of the film at 7 p.m. Tue., Aug. 26, at the Harris Theater. Following the screening, there will be a Q&A with director Jeffrey Radic and Dock's agent, Tom Reich.

The film returns for a week-long engagement on Sept. 5, at Regent Square.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fresh Start PA challenges Gov. Corbett on education issues

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2014 at 3:34 PM

At a press conference this morning hosted by the Campaign for a Fresh Start, chairwoman Katie McGinty challenged Gov. Tom Corbett on cuts to education funding during his tenure and the recent scandal surrounding his former special adviser on higher education Ron Tomalis. Taken together, said McGinty, those two issues have created a burden for Pennsylvania taxpayers.

Tomalis announced he would step down last week after Democrats, seizing on a Post-Gazette story, began questioning what exactly Tomalis was doing to merit being paid a $139,542 salary. McGinty said the governor has been unable and unwilling to provide details regarding Tomalis' work. And while Tomalis, a former Corbett education secretary, agreed to step down, his work as an adviser reportedly will boost his state pension.

"Mr. Tomalis is costing the taxpayer a huge price," McGinty said. "So latest count he's taken out about $200,000 of the public's limited resources. And now we know that the governor has seen fit to enable Mr. Tomalis to have a 25 percent boost in his pension as well. This is a huge cost burden to tax payers."

McGinty, whose group is backing gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf and other Democratic candidates, also criticized education funding cuts that have taken place during Corbett's term. According to McGinty, 77 percent of Pennsylvania school districts will have to raise property taxes as a result of decreased funding.

Pittsburgh teachers union President Nina Esposito-Visgitis explained the impact funding cuts are having on the Pittsburgh Public School District.

"Here in Pittsburgh. where Gov. Corbett's cuts have cost our public schools over $27 million in state revenue, our teachers have been demoralized as they've been made to watch their students — many times the neediest students of all — lose valuable services and programs that our teachers know their students need to succeed," said Esposito-Visgitis.

Corbett has been dogged by the education-funding issue throughout his campaign. His administration maintains that funding reductions were prompted by a reduction in federal support.

"Over the last four years, our administration has increased the state’s investment in our public schools by $1.46 billion to now historic levels," said Corbett's lieutenant governor Jim Cawley in a July 29 press release. "It’s shameful that the teachers’ union bosses continually perpetuate a lie to put their own interests over those of the students and teachers they serve."

Education funding by the state has increased in recent years, though not nearly enough to keep pace with the decline in federal support. And critics say that Corbett takes the blame, in part by refusing to impose a state severance tax on natural-gas drilling. At this morning's press conference, for example, was Lisa Stout-Bashioum, a current school board representative in the Brentworth School District running for a seat in the state House. She said Gov. Corbett could restore funding for education by imposing a tax on natural gas companies.

"In Allegheny and Washington counties, Tom Corbett has taken more than $60 million from our students since he was elected," Stout-Bashioum said. "Tom Corbett won't tax drillers even a little bit to help our children succeed. Why? Because children aren't donors."

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Local indie comedy screens tomorrow

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2014 at 11:17 AM

The latest chance to see the new comedy Progression comes complete with an update about the indie film’s own progress.

A scene from Progression
  • A scene from "Progression"
Gab Cody and Sam Turich’s feature film set at Lawrenceville’s long-running progressive dinnner gets its second local screening tomorrow night at the Bayardstown Social Club. But the film has also been accepted at California’s 15th annual Big Bear Lake International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 19-21.

In an email, Cody writes that that’s an even bigger honor than it sounds: The festival “will show 115 films, 85 percent shorts and 15 percent feature films,” she says.

It’s the microbudget film’s first festival screening, though it had previously also screened at New York City’s venerable Anthology Film Archives.

The Bayardstown screening is at sundown tomorrow. The screening is preceded by live music from Molly Alphabet and Chet Vincent and Big Bend (who appear in the film) and Josh Verbanets. The event continues the filmmakers’ grassroots distro strategy.

Tickes are $5 for nonmembers. The event is BYOB and BYO lawnchair, though a cash bar and food trucks will be on hand. Bayardstown is located at 3008 Penn Ave., in the Strip District.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pittsburgh Police say they haven't used Defense Department surplus program 'anytime recently'

Posted By on Tue, Aug 19, 2014 at 5:41 PM

The images of suburban Midwestern police officers in riot gear, outfitted with rifles, rubber bullets and gas canisters, have served as a powerful reminder of the military-grade equipment that's been flooding into local police departments.

And while Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has now ordered an actual military intervention in Ferguson, The New York Times last week published a handy interactive showing how local law enforcement agencies have benefited from a Defense Department program that lets them acquire military-style equipment. Allegheny County is no exception.

Of course, militarization of police generally is hardly a new issue: In 2007, City Paper's Charlie Deitch took a dive into the effect this kind of equipment on has on the public's trust of police, especially when deployed in poorer minority neighborhoods.

But we figured it would be worth checking in on the city's use of this particular program, especially since data compiled by the Times shows law-enforcement agencies within Allegheny County received 52 assault rifles, 24 pistols, 20 night-vision goggles, two mine-resistant vehicles and four other armored vehicles.

Pittsburgh Police spokesperson Sonya Toler wrote in an email that the bomb squad "received a robot in the '90s" and "SWAT got an armored vehicle around the same time." (Toler did not immediately clarify exactly what kind of robot or vehicle was acquired, but noted the robot was donated to Pittsburgh Public Schools in the early 2000s.)

Other than that, the police department "has not used the program anytime recently," Toler wrote.

The picture is less clear elsewhere in the county. "We wouldn't have any information on local police departments," says county spokesperson Amie Downs, and she says the county doesn't have a breakdown of its own equipment.

Beth Pittinger, the executive director of the city's Citizen Police Review Board, said she requested an "inventory of any surplus military equipment" from acting police chief Regina McDonald earlier today.

"I don’t think it’s a question about equipment, it’s a question about philosophy," Pittinger says. Some military-style equipment, she notes, can legitimately protect both civilians and police officers.

Still, Pittinger added, "We only need to look back to G-20 to see what the militarization of police really means."

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Hearings for ridesharing companies begin next week

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2014 at 4:30 PM

Two San Francisco ridesharing giants are headed back before PUC judges in Pittsburgh starting next week to fight for permanent authority to operate in Allegheny County and the state.

First up is Uber, which has hearings scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, at the PUC Pittsburgh office at Piatt Place, Downtown. Lyft will have its hearing on Aug. 27 and Sept. 3. These hearings will determine whether certificates of public convenience will be issued for the companies. The PUC grants the license for companies to transport passengers for compensation.

Lyft and Uber launched in Pittsburgh without first seeking approval from the PUC. Each company connects contracted drivers with passengers seeking a ride through a smartphone app and charges a fare based on distance and time. The hearings were made necessary when official protests were filed by local taxi companies. YellowZ, Pittsburgh Yellow Cab’s ridesharing service was not protested, and was approved without a hearing at the end of May.

As Uber prepares to face the multiple protests filed against it, the company is still working to meet the requirements set by the commission when it granted the company temporary operating authority last month.

Uber, along with competitor Lyft, was issued a cease and desist order on July 1. Each company continued to operate despite the orders. However, at a full meeting of the PUC Commissioners held on July 24, both Uber and Lyft were granted temporary authority to operate while the companies’ full permanent applications were considered. In order to lift the cease and desist orders, each company had to meet conditions set by the PUC.

The conditions included having full primary insurance to cover rideshare drivers from the time they open the app to solicit rides until they drop passengers off at the completion of the ride, file tariffs explaining rates, complete driver background checks, offer driver training and have drivers notify their insurance companies in writing that they were working for a ridesharing company.

Lyft beat Uber to the punch on Thursday, picking up its temporary certificate of public convenience for transportation in Allegheny County. The temporary authority is good for 60 days from the date of compliance. Lyft’s will expire Oct. 14.

“The immediate requirements to receive their certificate were to file the tariff and the insurance. (Lyft) fulfilled those requirements,” PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher says. “We are and will continue to work with the company to notify the insurance companies of their drivers and all of the other requirements from the order.”

Taylor Bennett, a spokeswoman for Uber, says the company is not far behind. It is working to meet the PUC’s requirements and will have an announcement next week.

In a letter sent by Uber to the PUC dated August 7, the company says it is working with its insurance company to expand its policy to be in compliance with the requirements.

Previously, Uber and Lyft offered excess liability policies that only kicked in after a driver’s personal insurance was used. Insurance companies are critical of that practice, saying that personal insurance policies are voided when vehicles are used for commercial transportation.

Kocher says the hearings are on separate applications, and Uber’s not meeting the requirements for the emergency temporary authority will not have an effect on whether it is granted a permanent license.

Pittsburgh joins in National Moment of Silence for victims of police brutality

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2014 at 2:33 PM

Together with cities throughout the country, last night Pittsburgh observed a moment of silence for victims of police brutality. The National Moment of Silence was spurred by the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.

"It's such an injustice," said Celeste Scott. "I'm a black mom of a black son, and I'm always worried about him and the police."

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Federal government announces early learning grant competition in Pittsburgh

Posted By on Thu, Aug 14, 2014 at 12:29 PM

On Aug. 13, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited the Hug Me Tight Child Life Center in the Hill District to announce a $250 million preschool development grant competition for early childhood education.

"We're working as hard as we can to expand access to high quality early learning opportunities," Duncan said. "Seeing the opportunities that kids have at a place like this is pretty remarkable."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan works with a student at Hug Me Tight
  • Education Secretary Arne Duncan works with a student at Hug Me Tight

According to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, half of the city's children up to age five don't have access to high-quality early learning opportunities like those offered by Hug Me Tight Daycare.

The preschool development grant can be used to provide early education opportunities for children from birth to 5 years old. The funds can be used to expand or create programs like early home visiting programs, where outreach workers provide parents with information on how to begin educating newborns and toddlers, or early head start programs like the one at Hug Me Tight Daycare.

"I honestly think it’s the most important investment we can make," said Duncan. "If they start a year or two behind, too often they can never catch up."

Duncan said studies have shown that society saves $7 for every $1 invested in early childhood education. These findings come from a study of children enrolled in an early childhood education center in Chicago.

"The U.S. relative to other industrialized nations ranks about 25th for spending on early childhood education," Duncan says. "Our children and our families deserve better."

The application process will be a joint effort between the mayor's office, the Pittsburgh Public School District, and local nonprofits. If Pittsburgh is selected funds can be distributed to a variety of sources including the school district, nonprofits, and community organizations like the YMCA or churches.

"Pittsburgh Public Schools has been working long and hard in this area of early childhood education and this opportunity to expand what we're doing is fabulous," said PPS Superintendent Linda Lane.

Applications for the grant are due by Oct. 14 and awards will be made in December 2014.

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