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Post-Gazette sues Gainey, city police over alleged striker 'trespassing' at distribution site

A Court of Common Pleas sign on a stone wall.
Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
In the complaint filed with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on Wednesday, the paper alleged the city’s police have failed to “protect the Post-Gazette’s employees, contractors and their property” by refusing to prevent what it calls “mass trespassing” at its South Side distribution facility.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has filed a civil complaint with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas against Mayor Ed Gainey, acting Pittsburgh Police Chief Thomas Stangrecki and Director of Public Safety Lee Schmidt.

In the complaint filed Wednesday, the paper alleged the city’s police have failed to “protect the Post-Gazette’s employees, contractors and their property” by refusing to prevent what it calls a “mass trespassing” by the paper’s striking employees at its South Side distribution facility.

Lawyers for the Post-Gazette with Littler Mendelson P.C., a national labor and employment law firm, filed a petition seeking a court order to compel the city and its police to enforce laws against trespassing.

The paper accuses members of the five unions representing employees at the Post-Gazette of blocking the Gateway View Plaza facility’s entrance and exits, as well as slashing tires, shining flashlights in drivers’ eyes, threatening violence and verbally harassing people.

According to the complaint, Post-Gazette personnel were told by police supervisors at the department’s Zone 3 station of an internal police memo that said “strikers have a legal right to be on the property.” Therefore, police told the Post-Gazette representatives, officers were prohibited from removing or arresting any picketers.

Cara Cruz, public information officer for the city’s Department of Public Safety, declined to comment on the litigation, as did city press secretary Maria Montaño due to its pending status.

Representatives with the Post-Gazette also declined to answer any further questions about the complaint.

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Are striking workers “trespassers” on employer property?

The paper’s complaint alleged that union members had blocked contracted employees from entering and leaving the distribution facility. But the gray area, according to Pittsburgh labor lawyer Mike Healy, lies in whether union members were standing on private or public property.

“For example, I may be on a sidewalk that looks like a public sidewalk and a company or store may say, ‘Oh no, this is our sidewalk. This is a private sidewalk,’” Healey explained.

But courts in Pennsylvania can also deem matters like this de minimis, or trivial, even if it technically violates a criminal statute, given the defendant did not threaten or cause harm.

Healy said the police are generally reluctant to arrest people in these situations unless they're blocking travel to and from the facility.

“If it's really a de minimis violation, they're generally not going to arrest people,” he added.

Healy, who represented former Post-Gazette cartoonist Rob Rogers after the paper fired him in 2018, also questioned why the paper has taken this path instead of requesting an injunction against its striking workers in Allegheny County, just as it did in Butler County last year.

That order, issued last November, limited the number of in-motion picketers allowed outside the Butler Eagle, where the paper has been printed since the beginning of the now months-long strike, to 10. It also banned harassment and restricted access to public sidewalks around the facility.

Given the success in securing a court order then, Healy said the decision to go after the city’s administration instead raises questions.

“[Seeking an injunction] is usually the route that employers take, and that's certainly what they took into Butler County, " he said. “So, this is a curious filing.”

Lawyers representing the Post-Gazette did not immediately respond to requests seeking clarification of the paper’s rationale for filing suit against the city.

Joe Pass, the lawyer representing the paper’s unions, confirmed the paper has yet to seek an injunction in Allegheny County. He said the paper’s owners sought a similar measure during the 1992 newspaper strike and were denied.

“We are absolutely, positively permitted to be on their property to picket them,” said Pass.

The complaint outlines a letter written by Pass and Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police President Robert Swartzwelder that reiterated that position. While he did not provide the letter to WESA, Pass said it cited a 2018 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling on picketing.

The decision upheld the National Labor Relations Board’s conclusion that union picketing outside an Olympia, Wash. hospital did not disrupt patient care.

Pass said the unions have filed an appeal of the Butler County injunction and expect a decision in the coming weeks.

Zack Tanner with the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents newsroom employees at the Post-Gazette, called the allegations against picketing workers false.

“It’s unfortunate that the PG wants to try to make up allegations against picketing striking workers rather than bargain with them,” he said. “There has been zero property damage, threats of violence, or anything else that they purport to have happened outside of standard picketing that I’m aware of.”

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.