Fight for $15: Pittsburgh won a battle, but the war isn’t over

Can Pittsburgh find a way to raise the minimum wage for all workers?

Local supporters of the Fight for $15 in Harrisburg

Local supporters of the Fight for $15 in Harrisburg

Samey Jay/Pittsburgh United
Sarah Anne Hughes

It’s around 5:50 p.m. Monday, and Fred Connor is standing off Beatty Street in East Liberty. He left Pittsburgh that morning on a bus to Harrisburg, and he’s just returned, nearly 12 hours later.

The day’s aim is written on his red T-shirt: He went to the state capital to “Fight for $15.”

Connor, 47, has lived in Pittsburgh for eight years, he said, and worked at a Wendy’s for six of those, making $8.40 an hour. He now works at Burgatory, where he makes a little bit more: $9.50 an hour.

But it’s still not enough to live on, he said: to pay his bills; to buy a new pair of sneakers; to visit his son in Texas and his daughter in New York. Connor hasn’t seen them for eight and 10 years, respectively.

“If you pay me $15 an hour, I can survive off that,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about anything.”

Connor was one of about 100 people from Pittsburgh who attended the Moral Revival Movement’s National Higher Ground Moral Day of Action in Harrisburg. There, supporters of “pro-labor, anti-poverty [and] anti-racist policies” delivered a declaration of these principles to Pennsylvania lawmakers as groups in other states did so in their respective capitals.

The Pittsburgh trip was organized by the local chapter of Fight for $15 and by the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network. Like the Moral Revival Movement, both groups want to see a $15 minimum wage for all workers — and to bring morality into the conversation.

“It’s about bringing a moral voice to the Fight for $15 movement,” said Alex Wallach Hanson, field director of Pittsburgh United, a social justice coalition that provided support for the trip.

Rev. Frederick J. White, a senior pastor at Kingdom Life Fellowship who attended Monday’s action, said the clergy has an obligation to bring their voices to an issue when lawmakers show “that there’s not a moral compass being utilized.”

While Gov. Tom Wolf wants to raise the statewide minimum wage to $10.10 an hour an increase that voters overwhelmingly support Republican lawmakers have blocked any movement. In a city like Pittsburgh, where the cost of living is steadily creeping up, that’s a problem for workers whose wages are stagnant.  

“As the city transitions from the steel town history to a more economic, vibrant city, the wage has to also reflect the quality of life increase that’s happening,” said White, a native Pittsburgher. “Companies cannot be the cause of poverty.”

“There’s this new Pittsburgh that’s developing,” Wallach Hanson said, “but there’s a real question about who benefits.” Tech-sector jobs like the ones coming to Pittsburgh can create employment in other industries, but that’s only a positive if wages for all workers keep pace, he said.

Forty-three percent of jobs added to the region in 2015 paid less than $14 an hour, according to a projection by the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board. Many of these jobs were in the food-service or healthcare industries. On the flip side, 27 percent of new jobs paid a median wage of $30.38 an hour.

“That statistic right there,” Wallach Hanson said, “is why the fight for $15 matters in Pittsburgh.”

Fight for $15's Chris Ellis joined by Rev. Ron Wanless of PIIN

Fight for $15's Chris Ellis joined by Rev. Ron Wanless of PIIN

Samey Jay/Pittsburgh United

Where the fight stands

Last year, Mayor Bill Peduto issued an executive order to raise the minimum wage of city employees to $15 an hour. The increase will happen gradually: first, to $12.50 in 2017, then $13.75 in 2019, and finally to $15 in 2021.

The increase’s scope is limited: At the time, the mayor’s office said around just 300 workers would benefit. In his order, Peduto urged the City Council to draft legislation that would expand this raise to contract workers. The Council has yet to move on that issue.

The Council also hasn’t taken up raising the minimum wage for all workers for one simple reason: It can’t.

Pittsburgh is a second-class city — that’s not a dig, rather a classification based on population size — with a home rule charter that limits what it can do at the level local.

Second-class status has stymied city lawmakers in the past when they’ve tried to dictate the actions of private businesses. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state’s home rule law prevents Pittsburgh from “regulating businesses by determining their ‘duties, responsibilities or requirements.’ ” That clause sits at the center of a lawsuit over the city’s paid sick leave law, which has been challenged by the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Hospitality Association and other businesses.

So when it comes to raising the minimum wage, “all we are able to do is encourage private employers to follow suit,” said Bethani Cameron of Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak’s office.

Samey Jay/Pittsburgh United

What the city can do

So far, encouragement has come in the form of free bus ads.

In 2015, the Council passed legislation, introduced by Councilman Corey O’Connor, to create a recognition program for city businesses that pay their full-time employees at least $10.10 an hour, or at least $3.93 an hour for tipped workers. As of this month, the Department of Finance has only approved an application from Wigle Whiskey; in exchange, the city placed free ads for the distillery at bus shelters earlier this year.

The Department of Finance is currently reviewing two applications, according to the mayor’s office. Most of the interest has come from businesses outside the city or from companies with fewer than 15 employees. (The legislation is limited to businesses that employ between 15 and 250 workers; companies with under 15 employees can seek special consideration from the finance department.)

What’s next

While Pittsburgh may be out of local legislative options, there’s a tactic central to the city’s identity that can still be deployed: organizing.

Last year, more than 1,200 workers at Allegheny General Hospital — from cafeteria employees to lab technicians to cleaning staff — voted to form a union. Other low-wage workers were able to unionize with the help of a “worker organizing table,” and now have wages that approach $15 an hour, Wallach Hanson said.

“When workers come together and organize, we can win those things,” Wallach Hanson said. “We really believe that workers organizing with community support can have a transformative impact on this city, and there’s a role for everyone in allowing that to happen.”

That role can include attending actions organized by Pittsburgh United, Fight for $15 or PIIN (Connor has attended 12).

White thinks lawmakers “absolutely” heard the group’s message on Monday. They met with an aide to the governor, he said, and delivered the declaration, which made clear they expect a response.

“If not, we’ll be back.”