This Hallowed Ground

The Battle of Homestead- Locked out Steelworkers engage with Pinkertons at Carnegie Steel's Homestead works

An OPN News Editorial

“All that harms Labor is treason to America”
Abraham Lincoln

Since Amazon launched it’s “Who Want’s to Bribe a Billionaire?” sweepstakes, and Jeff Bezo’s prior acquisition of The Washington Post, the wretched irony of that newspaper’s new subtitle- “Democracy Dies in Darkness” -is less a warning and more an affirmation. Public officials granting preferred access to the wealthy, meeting behind closed doors & making deals for development, while making the public pay for it all is business as usual. After the deal-making, we’re expected to be grateful for “jobs”, without job security; that pay subsistence wages & without real healthcare. We’re told the publicly paid for deals and subsequent conditions are better than nothing at all, so we all just need to get with the plan.

It’s been rumored the top three sites pitched to Amazon are: the former steel mill site in Hazelwood, the Lower Hill District, where forced displacement of thousands occured to build the Civic Arena, and the Carrie Furnace site- a few hundred yards across the river where locked out millworkers fought the Pinkertons at the Battle of Homestead. Much economic and social injustice history haunt all three. At a press event announcing CMU’s robotics division expansion at the Hazelwood site, Mayor Peduto accurately spoke about the former mill site as “Hallowed Ground”, because of the hard work & sacrifice made by former mill workers and their legacy here. And he’s right…

Pittsburgh is a Union town- so we know Robber Barons, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is wearing the same cloth of the Carnegie’s, Fricks and JP Morgan’s of yesteryear- all of whom could have doubled or more the wages of their workers and still remained obscenely wealthy. Pittsburgh labor built this country and a good part of the world on the backs of those millworkers who, before the Labor Movement brought Unionization, were grossly underpaid while working in extremely unsafe conditions. Back then the mills were dangerous- you either accepted the possibility of death or dismemberment, no healthcare whatsoever, the bare subsistence -and at times- fluctuating wages, or… nothing at all. The steel mills are gone, but there are other similarities to working conditions today.

There was no social safety net back in the Gilded Age, but in the present day, the public bears the cost for the needed social services used by underpaid and overworked employees of companies like Amazon, Walmart and others, straining those services in the era of massive budget cuts. Those who say “They should just get an education if they wanna make a better living!” are perhaps unaware of the plight of public school teachers across the country. Many must work 1 or 2 additional jobs. Budgets for public services and public education have steadily decreased, due to enormous tax cuts for the wealthy and multi-billion dollar corporations, while wages for workers across the economic spectrum have remained stagnant for decades. If the wealthy are paying their workers so little that they must rely on some form of public assistance, then the workers aren’t the problem. If educators are working 2 or 3 jobs, the teachers aren’t the problem.

There is nothing innovative about the exploitation of workers, and amongst the din of politicians’ auctioneering, you can almost hear the haunting cackle of H. C. Frick. He had a plan too.

Multi billion dollar corporations, including those masquerading as non-profits, are designed to pillage and plunder. The last 40 plus years of trickle down, now referred to as the Gig Economy or New Economy, is just the same scheme instituted by various industry cartels to rig the economic system, in part by shedding their daily operating costs and transferring them onto everyday citizens. Record profits every 3 months is religious policy, while the personal greed of executives and administrators are fed by contract perks via ginormous bonuses. As cover, they claim a “fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders.”

Wall Street, banks and corporations, helped along by complicit politicians, have eviscerated any checks and balances to the economy and even government itself, resulting in obscene wealth for the few, and a growing underclass of citizens without the ability or opportunity to pursue any type of American Dream. In the Re-Gilded Age, the basic costs of survival keeps people in debt, overworked, and with little time or energy. And if that’s not enough to keep the peasants at bay, the constant seductive distractions like sports watching as tribalistic ritual and many other diversions fills in any free time. The new American Dream for most, may be to avoid drowning while treading water.

Regarding the new development push in Pittsburgh: After the owner orchestrated collapse of the steel industry, if Mayor Peduto believes that Big Steel’s demise was so devastating, as he repeats ad nauseam to justify this type of development, then why throw public money at profit-at-all-cost companies with regional dominance, giving them even more power to set even lower wages? Why repeat the mistakes of the past by replacing 19th century Robber Barons with the 21st century kind? And given the goal of these companies to eliminate human jobs through automation, why insultingly place them on the very same land where long ago “Innovators” profited while mistreating our grandfathers, and their fathers? There is nothing innovative about the exploitation of workers, and amongst the din of politicians’ auctioneering, you can almost hear the haunting cackle of H. C. Frick. He had a plan too.

Giving public money to Amazon, UPMC, or Uber to set up shop in Hazelwood, or anywhere in Pittsburgh, given their past & present shabby treatment of employees and contract workers, along with their union busting philosophies, is akin to spitting on the graves of all former millworkers. It dishonors their sacrifices and their lives. Our Mayor has acknowledged the long history here of Labor, but there is a Union legacy to respect and continue into the future. Everyone, including public officials rights to a weekend, benefits, vacation time, lunch breaks and more are because of Unions, many of them millworkers here in Pittsburgh. These rights are not because of the benevolence of the self-appointed aristocracy. But so far, that hasn’t been part of the plans formulated in secrecy between public officials and corporations.

So what do we do?

The way forward is in Solidarity. Labor rights are Human rights, and Union wages lift up the wages of all workers. So we should all pay attention to the efforts of public school teachers across the country- teaching a master class on the way to the future. Their strikes are not just for an increase in personal pay, but also for all other public workers in their states, and budget restoration of their underfunded school systems. They, and others in solidarity, shut their states down because it’s not about the Me, it’s about all of us and our future, especially the children. Let’s follow their lesson plan.
Amazon, Uber, Walmart, UPMC and others… there are
many copies… and they have a plan.

So, this should be the beginning of our plan:

  • Full transparency and accountability from local officials as the new normal. Labor is included in planning- no meetings behind closed doors with the wealthy or big business… or we’ll shut it all down.
  • Present companies operating here must recognize workers rights to organize and form or join a union… or we’ll shut it all down.
  • Let’s end the turf wars and come together in Solidarity across all union organizations to agree on our future economy using human labor that creates profit. An injury to one, is an injury to all.
  • Labor leaders, social justice organizations, community groups etc. must create a Just Transition Plan, before the possible coming apocalypse of human job elimination.

All of Pittsburgh is Hallowed Ground. If, as local officials claim, the future is here, then the future is Union. So says our legacy, and hopefully – So Say We All.