- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
Five unions representing workers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh’s largest newspaper, have been on strike for nearly three months. Workers handling production, distribution, and advertising at the paper walked out at the beginning of October over the company’s refusal to pay for a collectively bargained health care plan. They were soon joined by Post-Gazette workers with the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, who went on strike over an unfair labor practice after the paper broke the law by trying to unilaterally impose working rules.
Last week, Jacobin contributor Sara Wexler spoke with two Post-Gazette employees about conditions at the paper, the strike, and their effort to build an alternative worker-led publication, the Pittsburgh Union Progress.
Why are you striking today?
We’re one of five unions of the Post-Gazette, the Newspaper Guild. Our contract and all the other contracts expired back in 2017. The company went into bargaining with us starting in March 2017 and has made almost no movement in the almost six years since.
Back in summer 2020, they illegally declared an impasse in bargaining and unilaterally implemented working rules. We fought that to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB); that was heard in front of an administrative law judge in September and October of 2022. We went on strike just about four or five days after that hearing wrapped up.
There’s four other unions at the Post-Gazette; they deal with production, distribution, and advertising at the paper. They were in a fight with the company over increases to their health care plan, which had been collectively bargained, and the company had contractual obligations to pay the increases. But the company refused to, and the third-party health care plan dropped those workers. The company even had the option to sign off on letting the workers pay those increases themselves, which would have been about $19 a week per employee.
We’re talking not that many people, this was not a large chunk of change — the company is owned by Block Communications, which makes over $100 million in profits every year. The paper let those workers go without health care at the beginning of October, and those workers went on strike about two weeks before we did so. They’re on strike because they don’t have health care. And we’re on strike after an NLRB hearing wrapped up, fighting for a contract after almost six years without one.
What precipitated your strike if it wasn’t the health care situation?
It was the unfair labor practice charges on bad-faith bargaining and illegal declaration of impasse, and illegally implemented working conditions. We’ve been fighting that at the NLRB since 2020.
I heard that a lot of workers haven’t had pay raises in about fifteen years. Is that true?
Is it sixteen years at this point?
The last across-the-board raise that workers at the Post-Gazette got was on January 1, 2006.
Yes, seventeen years now.
When did the strike begin? And how did the organizing around the strike start happening?
The Newspaper Guild strike started on October 18. The organizing around it was fast. It was a crisis point at the paper — four different unions lost their health insurance. Our NLRB hearing had just wrapped up. It was this point of: if there’s a time to do this, it’s now. So, there was some rapid on-the-ground organizing around it.
It happened so quickly. A lot of people didn’t quite have time to react to that. There was some organizing happening on the picket line on the first day of the strike, and getting more people out onto the line after day one. I think on day one we had thirty-some people.
Yeah, and then we got up to about fifty-five.
The increase of twenty-some people was the first couple of days. It was a lot of sidewalk organizing: like, “Come to the picket line, and let’s talk about the issues; let’s talk about how to leaflet and have one-on-one conversations with our colleagues and have external communication conversations about that, a message around the streets, to media and the public.” It was a lot of on-the-fly organizing.
I’m cochairing the Health and Welfare Committee. Our first day was literally just like, “Okay, how do we get the infrastructure set up to make sure that people can pay their bills?” It was very much flying by the seat of our pants — we just had to figure it out. We had to be perfect at it. Material concerns are the number-one reason why people are afraid to strike. So, the first two weeks was us doing that on that committee: getting all the systems set up and getting our strike fund set up.
If the contract expired in 2017, are you eligible for strike relief from your union?
Yes, every striker gets $400 a week from the Communications Workers of America.
So, what point in the strike are you at right now?
We’re entering our third month. We went out on October 18. We’ve had four bargaining sessions with the company, and the company has come to the table with nothing.
Our first bargaining session after the strike commenced, the company came with the same final offer that it made in the summer of 2020. They didn’t offer wage increases, they just enumerated what the pay scale was. And there are no other changes in it, after two years that they had had a majority of their workforce on strike. They haven’t made any changes to any of their proposals, since we’ve been on strike in the four bargaining sessions.
We’ve been writing our own publication, the Pittsburgh Union Progress, and just yesterday, it hit one thousand subscriptions. Our subscriptions are free, but it hit one thousand subscriptions. We’re at a point now where we’re really trying to push people to read and subscribe to the Union Progress.
Yeah, that’s the pressure point that we’re at. We need to show the Post-Gazette that we can compete with it. Some of the best reporters in the city are with us at the Union Progress.
Tell me more about this worker-run publication. Do you see a future for that?
I think we’re at a moment where we could do something really historic and really cool. This is an opportunity that we’re grabbing. Pittsburgh is a union city: the support we’ve gotten has been amazing. We want to do something that’s very community driven — covering parts of the community that maybe had been neglected by the Post-Gazette. We’re doing everything from high-school basketball coverage to the bridge collapse that we had last year. We’re really ramping up our efforts with the Union Progress, and I think we’re showing a lot of progress.
We’ve been without a contract for almost six years now. That’s solely because of a corporate decision by multimillionaires, with like fourth-generation inherited wealth, people who haven’t worked a day in their life for one cent that they have.
They don’t want to give us a contract; they don’t want to give us modest pay increases and keep our health care affordable. Under the health care plan that they put us on, for example, a family might be responsible for up to $13,000 more per year in health care coverage. That’s just in premiums and deductibles. So, that’s like a $13,000 pay cut that people are taking just to have health insurance, which is a corporate decision made by multimillionaires.
If they’re going to treat their workers like that, why should we trust them to be able to cover the community effectively? Shouldn’t the community trust people that live in it and work in it and organize in it? That’s what we’re doing with the Union Progress: we are reporters who live in Pittsburgh, who live in this area, who are covering our neighbors and the places that we go and the schools that our kids attend. That is really what we’re emphasizing with the Union Progress — this is a worker-led, community-driven, inclusive, diverse space, something the Post-Gazette hasn’t been maybe in its entire 237-year history. We’re starting something new here, and it is going to embarrass the Post-Gazette.
What are your demands to the Post-Gazette?
Our demands when we went out on strike a little over two months ago were to restore our 2017 contract, which they ripped apart in summer 2020, and to bargain over health care with both us and our sibling unions who went out on strike as well. And for the company to commit to return to the bargaining table in good faith for a successor contract. They haven’t made a move on even one of those issues. So, as we enter our third month, subscribe to the Union Progress and donate to the strike relief fund.
How have the community and other unions responded to your strike?
It’s been amazing. The Starbucks workers were out with us at a rally on Tuesday after a bargaining session. The Steelworkers donated this office to us, our headquarters. Zack’s looking at the list today of which unions have donated money to us, and the list is very, very extensive. The New York Times Guild sent us a bunch of money. It’s not just coming from other journalists, though — it’s coming from every union in the city.
The Post-Gazette has been embattled in controversy for years now; the owners have really taken a right-wing turn over the past few years. They took a black reporter off of Black Lives Matter coverage back in summer 2020.
The Post-Gazette is a stained name in the community. But the workers’ names aren’t, and to now be able to say, “We’re standing up and fighting the Post-Gazette,” the community has really embraced that. Not just labor donating to the strike fund, but people like the Starbucks workers who’ve been on strike welcoming us into their spaces to tell their stories. Those were workers who weren’t really interested in dealing with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But the workers who are standing up and fighting and publishing in the Union Progress — they are welcoming us into that space and letting us tell their stories. And that is critical to journalism and reporting in a place like Pittsburgh.
Do you think the strike might inspire action from other workers in the media industry or elsewhere?
It already has. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram went out; the workers actually just went back in today [December 22]. The New York Times did its walk out. This is the first newspaper strike in, what, twenty years. Not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but I think that this momentum is very obvious. Other people are taking advantage of the environment and the energy that’s going on right now in media organizing. That also feels very good, and it’s where a lot of our support comes from.