Late on the night of March 11 outside of a distribution center on the South Side of Pittsburgh, a scab truck driver assaulted two striking workers. The strikers are members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and have been engaged in a work stoppage alongside four other unions at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since October of last year. The strike is a response to intransigence from the paper’s ultrawealthy owners, the Block family, on the matter of paying for workers’ rising health insurance premiums.
The roughly thirty striking Teamsters work for the Post-Gazette as drivers and in the paper’s circulation department. They, alongside three other unions that walked out in October — the NewsGuild joined the strike a few days later — were moved to do so in response to the Post-Gazette’s refusal to cover those costs. Workers now have not had a contract for nearly six years.
“Most of these workers have been with this company for more than three decades,” said Joe Barbano, a business representative for Teamsters Local 205, of which the assaulted strikers are members. “They work from midnight until 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. They go out in horrible weather and make sure the newspaper gets delivered. To have the company force a strike is a complete slap in the face.”
The Blocks have been using the South Side distribution center to get out a paper staffed by workers who are crossing the picket line as well as a few new hires. They have sought an injunction from the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas to prevent members and supporters of the five unions from what they call “trespassing” outside of the South Side location.
An investigation into the assault is ongoing, but one striker had his jaw broken and required reconstructive surgery — a problem exacerbated by the Blocks having stripped the strikers of health insurance.
“He has to have this part of his face rebuilt, and guess what? The funny thing is, he doesn’t have any health care to do it because this scumbag up here took his health care from him,” said Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council president Darrin Kelly said at a rally in front of the Post-Gazette’s North Shore offices following the incident.
“They Think of Us as Less Than Human”
The March 11 assault marks an escalation of the longest newspaper strike in the United States since the mid-’90s, when journalists in Detroit struck for nearly two years. Workers at a Pittsburgh paper, the Pittsburgh Press, struck during that era, too, an action only resolved when the Blocks purchased the Press from Scripps-Howard, then put it out of business and absorbed some of its workers. A few of those journalists are still at the Post-Gazette — and on the picket line.
Susan Banks works on the night copy desk at the Post-Gazette. She was hired by the Pittsburgh Press in 1977 and then moved to the Post-Gazette following the paper’s sale. Such seniority means that she remembers working under the paper’s previous owner, William Block Sr, before his twin nephews John Robinson “JR” Block and Allan Block took the helm.
Banks described Block Sr as a “wonderful man” who treated his employees well. Recalled Banks: “He would eat his sandwich in the cafeteria every day, sitting down and talking to anybody. The pressmen were down there, covered in ink, and he was there.” Plus, he negotiated with the long-standing union. By contrast, the latest generation of Blocks have proven not only eager to impose their conservative politics on the paper — prohibiting a black journalist from reporting on the Black Lives Matter movement and running editorials in support of Donald Trump — but cartoonishly villainous avatars of wealth in a city with a long history of such figures.
“The twins are the worst version of how rich people look at those of us who have to work for a living,” said Banks. “I have a hard time understanding why they’re treating people in such a horrible manner, but when you see JR in action, you understand that they think of us as less than human, as serfs.”
There’s no lack of evidence to back up that view. To take one infamous incident: in 2019, JR, the paper’s publisher, arrived in the newsroom around 10 p.m., accompanied by his young daughter. Apparently incensed by a union sign in the newsroom, JR directed a stream of vitriol at his employees — while simultaneously berating his daughter, instructing her not to associate with the “working class.” According to journalists who witnessed the incident, he told her, “You’re a Block, you’re not one of them.”
Such ideological opposition might explain why the Blocks are refusing to negotiate, even as the issue at hand — restoring the health insurance workers had in 2020 and returning to the bargaining table — is far from radical. Indeed, between retaining a premier union-busting law firm and hiring their own security, the Blocks are likely spending more money on the strike than they would have on the insurance premiums with which workers are concerned. Such intransigence suggests that the family’s ultimate aim is to destroy the union.
“If they end up breaking the union here, no amount of money could get me to go back in there and work for them,” said Banks, noting that in the past, she has seen the Blocks fire members of management, (who are not protected by a union) without warning. While she has reached an age at which she can retire, and she plans to do so rather than ever return to the Post-Gazette, she applauded the courage of her younger coworkers who remain on strike even as they endure financial and professional hardship.
“These young workers know that you need to take charge of your own life and sometimes, the only way to do that is a union,” said Banks. “I’m honored to be on the line with these people and I’ll stand with them until the end of it.”
Strikers are currently receiving $400 per week in strike benefits from the union. Roughly a dozen of those who are in particular need are receiving an additional $200 per week from other Communications Workers of America (CWA) locals that can “sponsor” them, a program Banks set up. Other unions have pitched in, too: for example, the United Steelworkers have donated office space. A few NewsGuild members have left for other jobs and others have crossed the picket line, leaving roughly forty members out on strike. The total amount of strikers across all five unions numbers around one hundred.
Regarding those journalists who are scabbing, Banks points out that remote work has made such a move far easier: “People don’t actually have to cross a picket line to go to work. You don’t have to face a line of people that you work with. If people actually had to face their coworkers and cross, I think a lot of people wouldn’t have done it.”
A Historic Moment
The morning after the production units went out on strike in October, Post-Gazette photojournalist Steve Mellon had an assignment to cover Governor Josh Shapiro’s appearance at a local union hall. He and his fellow journalists in the NewsGuild-CWA Local 28061 had gone on a byline strike to protest management’s refusal to bargain a new contract after the prior one had expired years ago, but they were still working.
He wondered if anyone at the event would question his presence; after all, Pittsburgh is a storied union town, and crossing a picket line is considered unforgivable by many trade unionists.
“One guy came up to me and said it was strange that I was still working, but I told him that I agreed and had the same questions,” remembered Mellon, who has been at the Post-Gazette since 1997. The NewsGuild unit had nearly gone on strike in 2020 over the same issues that ultimately led them out in October of last year. Soon, they took a strike authorization vote. On October 18, they began the unfair labor practice (ULP) strike over what they said was the Blocks’s bad-faith bargaining.
Mellon was covering Mehmet Öz’s Pennsylvania Senate campaign that morning. After photographing the press conference, he got in his car, transmitted the photos, and wondered how long it would be until he would again send photographs to the paper. Then, he drove to the picket line.
“I had no idea what a strike would be like, but I knew we were pushing back in a way that felt good to do given all the issues we’ve had with our contract,” said Mellon. After a few hours on the picket line, he and a few other strikers went to a brewery across the street and spent four hours hammering out the details for structures — health care, strike pay, a fund for donations — that would be critical for ensuring workers could stay on strike.
“Deciding to strike was scary and none of us felt prepared for it, but I knew that it was the right thing to do,” said Erin Hebert, a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette who first joined the paper in 2016. Hebert is from Louisiana, and she spoke up during the Guild’s meeting regarding strike authorization. “I said that people take care of each other during hurricanes and other natural disasters. I knew we would figure it out. This is a time of crisis and that’s what people do in such situations.”
Shortly after the strike began, the Post-Gazette workers launched a strike paper. The Pittsburgh Union Progress (PUP) covers not only the newspaper strike, but subjects the journalists would otherwise be covering for the Post-Gazette. For instance, two of my high school classmates who are among the strikers published articles on film screenings and high school basketball yesterday. A number of local elected officials, including Pittsburgh mayor Ed Gainey, have pledged to speak to the PUP rather than the Post-Gazette for the duration of the strike. As of this writing, the strikers say the PUP has 2,273 subscribers.
“We’re out there as representatives of the Pittsburgh Newspaper Guild and of the strike paper,” said Mellon. “We’re developing those relationships, we’re still able to produce journalism, and we’re visible as union reporters and union photographers who are interested in the community and doing it without pay.”
That said, for a journalist, there is a discomfort in becoming part of a story solely on account of one’s workplace dispute. As Mellon recalled, one of the first events he covered for the PUP was “Outrageous Bingo,” a monthly drag bingo event that has been running for twenty-five years:
They made some announcements before they started bingo, and one of the announcements was, “We have a representative here from the strike paper, the PUP,” and they announced my name. I’m standing in the middle of a room with my notebook and everybody stands up and applauds. It was a little bit awkward because you never want to be the center of attention when you’re a journalist, so I just raised my hand and thanked people and tried to slink into a corner. I just didn’t know how to handle that.
Mellon said that the strike feels like a moment in which his career has come full circle, from one historic moment for the labor movement to another: the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike, in which President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers and gave the green light to bosses’ union busting nationwide, unfolded during his first job in journalism, an internship at United Press International (UPI). He had attended Eastern Kentucky University and knew a bit about unions’ historic connection to coal country, but he described himself as “completely disconnected” from the labor movement back then. Yet he remembers that during time at UPI, a story came over the wire about PATCO.
“That felt historic, and so does this moment: the first strike at a US newspaper in more than two decades, taking place at the same time as tectonic changes unfold in the newspaper industry,” said Mellon. “I see workers standing up and saying that this needs to change, we can’t work sixty hours a week and be paid a pittance and have our health care challenged. Nobody wants to be on strike, but if this is going to happen, I want to be a part of the fight.”
Recently, another journalist asked Hebert, the copy editor, if there was a monetary threshold at which she would scab. She says she told them no — nothing the Blocks could offer her would make her cross the picket line before the strike ends. “My life will never be the same after this,” she said.
I like having money, I like having an income, but I’ve never felt more fulfilled, because I know that we’re doing the right thing. I know that when we do win, we’ll be able to walk back into that office with our heads held high. I am in this for the long haul, till the bitter end. I’ve learned a lot about my capacity to care for other people and I’ve realized that what I am doing is love — it makes me emotional the way that my coworkers and I are in this together. This strike has completely changed the way that I see other people and the way that I value how people stand up for what they believe in and do the right thing.