Organizational Issues: Despite challenges, local unionization efforts press on | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Organizational Issues: Despite challenges, local unionization efforts press on

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"Rivers and its affiliates have the worst casino labor dispute outside of Las Vegas and Atlantic City," says Scolnik. "Typically, the standard in the industry is that employees have a fair process."

Since April 2013, Unite Here has filed approximately 70 complaints against Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB found merit on 28 of the counts alleging casino management were intimidating workers and preventing them from having a fair organizing process.

"It's a problem when an employer promises good jobs and then fails to deliver on them," Scolnik says. "It's a problem when a company can violate federal labor law and it's hard for there to be any consequences."

Without consequences for employers, organizers say many employees are too fearful to engage in unionizing efforts, especially when they're earning low wages and living paycheck to paycheck.

"It's hard enough to make it on $10 an hour right now, and the fear of working for even less makes it hard for people to stand up to their employers," says Mason, from One Pittsburgh. "They are watching their co-workers get fired or reprimanded for being involved in organizing, and quite frankly, that fear means it is going to take longer to organize those places. I would be willing to wager that if there was no union-busting happening at these places it would take less than a year to organize."

In September, as part of a demonstration organized in part by Mason, eight fast-food workers were arrested outside of a McDonald's in Wilkinsburg. That rally was part of a national campaign calling for a $15 hourly wage for fast-food workers.

"When did asking for a living wage, so that you can pay your rent and your bills and buy groceries without having to skip on any one of those, become a problem?" says Mason. "We should keep in mind, people are asking for a living wage from corporations and companies that are quite literally raking it in, because of the work from their low-wage workers."

But University of Pittsburgh professor James Craft, who has studied labor relations and human resources, says the decline of unions might be because organizers aren't doing a good job of explaining to employees why they're necessary.

"There's an environment that's been created that provides some of the things unions used to do and that's led to less of an interest in unions," says Craft. "I'm not saying they're unnecessary at all. I'm saying there are environmental factors that make a person feel that they don't need a union."

Craft says that unlike when unions were at their peak, most workplaces now have human-resources departments that are supposed to give employees a voice. And workforce legislation has been enacted to do everything from protecting employees from discrimination to requiring that employers provide health care.

"If you talk to someone who's a low-paid service worker, do they feel like they have a voice? Probably not," says Craft. "But we have all kinds of legislation to protect employees. These are things that used to be negotiated by unions."

Pittsburgh United, a nonprofit focusing on social and economic justice, hosts a regular meeting where 10 different organizing campaigns from around the city come together to discuss strategy and progress.

"We're seeing all of these different groups at different stages, but the commonality to all of them is they're not going to win unless they put public pressure on employers," says Pittsburgh United executive director Barney Oursler. "This kind of work takes time. But if all of the campaigns succeed, we're talking about 45,000 workers."

For Oursler, the local union efforts are as much about improving the Pittsburgh economy as they are about improving the lives of the workers.

"Unless we create jobs that build the middle class, we're not going to have a strong economy," Oursler says. "You can fight for higher minimum wages, but in reality the only real power workers can use is collective bargaining."

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