By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
As another work week began in Oakland, a crowd of approximately 100 gathered on Forbes Avenue to protest for the rights of black workers. Attendees included labor leaders, union members, children, and elected officials.
The march, dubbed “Black Workers Matter,” was organized by local unions and worker’s organizations, including SEIU 32BJ, Pittsburgh United, and Hospital Workers Rising. “Black Workers Matter” came about as part of “Strike for Black Workers,” a national campaign organized by 44 worker’s rights groups. Strikes and protests are being held across the country today, July 20, including major events in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Detroit, among others.
The demands of the protesters include increased access to PPE, living wages, the right to unionize without intimidation or harassment, and paid sick leave and hazard pay beyond the pandemic.
The march began around 8:30 a.m. at the intersection of McKee Place and Forbes Avenue, before proceeding on Forbes toward the University of Pittsburgh. The rally marched to the intersection of Forbes and Bigelow, right in front of the Cathedral of Learning. Once there, Steve Kelley, an executive board member of SEIU 32BJ, instructed the crowd to sit in the intersection, and articulated why they protest.
“We were the first ones impacted when COVID-19 hit. Many of us were laid off or forced to work in environments we did not know were safe,” said Kelley. “We are on the front lines, with the nurses and doctors…risking our lives and risking our families. The obligatory pat on the back is no longer enough.”
After his speech, Kelley introduced a number of speakers to say their piece. Amanda Green-Hawkins, a union lawyer and former candidate for PA Superior Court, attended the protest with her young daughter, and spoke of why imparting this message was important to her.
“We’re talking about people’s jobs and people’s lives, and that’s why we’re taking up the street today,” said Green-Hawkins. “It’s the reason I brought my baby with me today: so she understands that her life matters, because she’s going to have to demand that her life matter.”
Alexandria Cutler, a food service worker at UPMC Presbyterian, also addressed the crowd, speaking of her fear that she could bring COVID-19 to her family from work.
“I have people that I have to go home to, young people, old people, people I have to take care of,” said Cutler. “I’m constantly scared that I’m going to bring something back to my family, and not know I have it.”
Cutler also discussed incidents that she experienced at her job that make her question UPMC’s commitment to its black workers.
“The only white coworker in my department…said the n-word while talking to me, and he was not punished to the same severity I would be,” said Cutler. “If it was me or any other black worker, we would be gone.”
PA House Representative Summer Lee was the final speaker of the morning, giving an impassioned speech stating her commitment to the fight for workers rights, including a living wage, paid sick leave and paid vacation. She also stressed the importance workers rights have in the advancement of the black community.
“Even as we fight for black lives against police violence, we have to recognize that black folks are still dying at their jobs,” said Lee. “That black folks are still dying from hunger because their jobs don’t pay, that black families are still dying from illnesses because their children and elderly are not covered.”