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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette argues in court against workers' right to picket on company property

 The exterior of a gray building that says "Gateway View Plaza."
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
The Post-Gazette distribution facility on Pittsburgh's South Side.

An Allegheny County judge heard arguments Thursday on whether the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s striking workers have a right to picket on company property.

The Post-Gazette is seeking a permanent injunction that would prohibit union members — on strike for nearly eight months — from picketing outside its South Side distribution facility.

In a complaint filed with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in February, the newspaper accused picketers of repeated trespassing and blocking the building’s sole entrance and exit, as well as engaging in verbal threats and harassment.

“This is union busting through and through,” said Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh President Zack Tanner ahead of Thursday’s hearing. “The company and their allies are pulling these things out of thin air to try to make the unions look as bad as possible to the public eye.”

A spokesperson for the Post-Gazette declined to comment.

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Arguments rested on whether or not the Court of Common Pleas has the jurisdiction to rule on the matter of peaceful picketing, an action protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

“Strike activity goes to the heart of the NLRA,” attorney Steven Winslow, who represents the paper’s unions, told the court.

Winslow said because of that, the matter fell strictly under the domain of the National Labor Relations Board and could not be resolved by local or state judiciaries.

Meanwhile, the newspaper’s attorneys argued federal preemption only applies when there is no violence or damage to company property during pickets.

Lawyers with Littler showed the court multiple videos they say prove violent acts occurred at Gateway View Plaza, the distribution facility in question.

Located in Station Square, it’s the same distribution facility where a March altercation between striking employees and a company contractor led to one hospitalization.

While union representatives called the incident an exception to what has been largely a “calm and peaceful” series of protests, Post-Gazette Director of Operations Robert Weber — who was called to testify Thursday — described the demonstrations as “an onslaught of intimidation, harassment and threats” directed at contractors fulfilling the job responsibilities of striking workers.

“You intimidate, harass people enough, they’re not going to come down and do that job anymore,” Weber said.

In the videos attorneys played for the court, striking employees and supporters use expletives and, on a few occasions, threaten workers contracted to do union jobs during the strike.

Weber said protestors have blocked entrances and exits to the distribution facility for up to an hour on multiple occasions, resulting in more than a dozen police cars being called to the scene, though no arrests have been made at Gateway View Plaza since the strike began.

The Post-Gazette has employed several contractors with the Phillips Group, a national strike security agency. According to Weber, security officers carry cameras to document picketing.

Weber said the company has also hired off-duty City of Pittsburgh police officers through RollKall, a platform on which law enforcement can find secondary details.

One of those officers, Zone 6 patrolman Joseph Morrison, was called to the stand Thursday. Morrison took after-hours patrol jobs at Gateway View Plaza on several occasions throughout January and February.

While he did witness picketers frequently taunt workers at the facility and attempt to block incoming and outgoing vehicles, Morrison said he never witnessed any damage to company property or violence.

Post-Gazette attorney Brian Hentosz, however, questioned whether interruptions to the newspaper’s bi-weekly print distribution could count as damage to company property.

Hentosz pressed striking Post-Gazette copy editor John Santa on the matter upon taking the stand.

Santa told Judge Mary McGinley that the unions’ goal has always been to slow down operations at Gateway View Plaza, and “make things difficult for the scabs.”

At the same time, Santa, Tanner and John Clark, president of the CWA local representing the paper’s mailers, all testified that they have not witnessed, encouraged nor planned any violence or damage of property while picketing.

The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating multiple unfair labor practice charges the unions filed against the Post-Gazette for allegedly prohibiting employees from picketing at the facility’s common spaces, like the parking lot.

Winslow and long-time Post-Gazette union attorney Joe Pass — who is also a defendant in the case — argued the charges must be resolved before a state or local court can claim jurisdiction in the case.

During the hearing, the United States Supreme Court ruled on another case that tested whether the courts or the NLRB have jurisdiction in strike-related cases. The board is tasked with resolving labor disputes under federal law. The 8-1 majority opinion issued Thursday, however, argued that because striking workers had intentionally caused damage to company property, the case could continue in state court.

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.