Contesting the Global City – Pittsburgh’s Public Services Unions Confront a Neoliberal Agenda

This below article was summarized  from the book of Michael Burawoy et al “Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World” (2000), chapter nine wrote by Steven H. Lopez “Contesting the Global City – Pittsburgh’s Public Services Unions Confront a Neoliberal Agenda” inspired me to write short article. Global imaginations reconfigure what is possible, turning globalisation from an inexorable force into a resource that opens up new vistas!

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Pittsburgh is historically known for its steel industry or being known as “the Steel City” but has transformed itself into Global City as its elites busily tried to reinvent the city’s economy based on finance, health services, informational and biomedical technologies. And of course this situation has tremendous impacts on the city and the people. The Author, Steven H. Lopez, in his paper tries to analyze how the labor movement was dealing with dramatic transition from steel city to global city, the process of economic transition and especially the move from the state or social ownership to privatization.

Through participant observation research and doing internships in SEIU Local 9867 as “internal” organizing project aimed at helping its unit of 1.500 Allegheny County workers win new contracts. He tried to catch a bigger picture on how union would be able to contest globalization, and its underpinning assumption and rationales held by supporters of globalization and privatization by reflecting on two campaigns held by the union. 

Lopez said for labor the very real pressure of globalization demanded not only a new set of tactic, not only new organizational forms overriding legacies of the pas, but also new imagination with which to challenge the assumptions of the neo-liberal ideology

Fighting against privatization and defending the rights of public services

Campaign against privatization started as the county planned to private the county’s four public nursing home, the Kane Regional Centers. The argument for the plan was public administration run businesses ineffectively over private market. Another argument for privatizing Kane’s public nursing home was overstaffed and too expensive.

The Kane’s workers fully aware of the privatization plan which would directly and indirectly impacts to themselves and the patients, the aged and the disabled residents they cared for. Therefore, for fighting against the privatization and defending public services they built an effective collaboration with the residents as part of strategic community coalitions

The mission of nursing home for caring the aged and disabled residents who needed care brought the Kane’s workers MORAL DUTY and humanitarian vision which called them for action contested privatization plan. But they had to face internal challenges related to the history of business unionism and other problem which was that the Kane’s workers were also represented by another union, Local X. How the union and workers to overcome their own internal challenges? How to break out of this union bureaucratic conservatism or as Michels’s[1] said iron law of oligarchy in their union? But their anger over the privatization (cause for them privatization led to cutback in staffing, wages and benefits) and the strength of their emotional ties to residents were able to make Local 9876 bypass the problems and organised collective mobilization through series of direct actions and rallies without direct supervision from union staff.

Lopez said their victory in anti-privatization campaign was not rooted in the mere fact of grassroots mobilization tactics but rather in the union’s carefully attention to whose voices were raised and what they said.

Building a broader community coalition, that the union engaged with their community allies to counter the agenda of privatization:

1)      Alliance for Progressive Action (APA): activists of the organization were formers Old Kane Hospital who in 1970 acted as Whistleblowers[2] by publishing a report called ‘Kane: A Place to Die”. The report got national attention and brought about improvement on quality of the care service.

2)      Together in September 1996, Local 9876 and APA established new group called Committee to Save Kane, which run several activities such as:

  • Organizing residents’ family member to circulate petition. Lopez said collaboration with the family residents was a good strategy they did.
  • The members of Committee to Save Kane put their identities as elderly advocates
  • The committee also made coordination with progressive church leaders during which APA had been already in the process of organizing the Pittsburg Area Religious Task Force on the Economy, to recruit church leaders who had historically supported labor causes and issues. This coordination was a choice made in right time in the right place. Because Task Force had not have a concrete action plan, the Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist and Jewish clergy enthusiastically supported proposal of anti-privatization campaign.

Campaign message was important option the union chose in winning the campaign and made media interested in cover it. Defending human dignity and the importance of maintaining quality care for vulnerable citizen were keys for their campaign victory. 

Winning Fair Contract

Lopez said around 3500 workers who represented by eleven county unions were still working under the terms of expired contracts. And for negotiating a new contract Local 9876 and other county unions had different strategies. The County’s unions wanted a quiet lobbying and behind-the-scene pressure but the Local 9876 needed a stronger push to the commissioners.

Lopez said it was actually not easy for the union to make a counter-ideology to fight for fair contract as they did for anti-privatization campaign which got strong support from and alliances with community. Fair contract did not have emotional punch on moral duty or quality to improve public services to get support from the community, fair contract was more concerned to merely pay and working conditions of the County’s workers.

 Besides, as Lopez said, these contracts struggle required more intensive organizing than mobilizing angry workers. How did the union breakdown the three central organizational legacies: bureaucratic inertia, rank and file repertoire, and a worksite leadership vacuum in order to redistribute support and get greater worksite participation? Mobilizing the members through ‘rolling thunder week’ and ‘solidarity day’ was successfully organized as part of the union collective protest during the campaign. However, the actions depended on steward and worksite leaders.

 The union was also able to train worksite stewards aimed at increasing their capacities to organize effectively even though it was overdue and poorly attended by the Allegheny County stewards. Therefore the union hired three college-student interns to support the campaign as organizer.  But, as two of them went back to colleague the union seemed to be run out of organizer; even though there were few volunteer worksite stewards in place, the situation was still a hindrance for the union because of lack of training and support in the stewards’ hands. Despite the circumstance the union was able to conduct several worksite meetings to educate about the bargaining situation and the need for rank and file’s involvement in the contract campaign.

Lesson Learned

Globalization adversely affects unions, hence union campaigns to challenges against globalization and has the responsibility to defend workers rights and quality public services as well, particularly for the public sector unions.

For Lopez, the two campaigns have asymmetry effects between the dilemmas on ideology and organization legacies. But with the ability of the union campaigns to overcoming/confronting the dilemmas led them to organize collective actions with their allies and mobilize workers.

In addition, the treats of privatization require public sector unions to simultaneous protecting the rights of public sector workers and to construct a progressive platform as a coherent response to globalization.


[1] Robert Michels

[2] Whistleblowers is the person who raises a concern about wrongdoing occurring in organization or body, usually this person would be from that same organization

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