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'Our body, our choice': Port Authority employees protest the vaccine mandate

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Bus driver Danyelle Cheatham declined to share her vaccination concerns, but said she wants the Port Authority to respect her choice and bargain with her union.

Dozens of people gathered outside of Port Authority’s headquarters in Downtown Pittsburgh on Friday morning to protest the agency’s vaccine mandate and the potential termination of hundreds of employees.

Port Authority workers have served the public for two years, and “now we are being disposed of,” said Danyelle Cheatham, a bus driver who is unvaccinated. She declined to share her concerns about vaccination, but she said she has followed all of the agency’s precautions and would gladly continue to do so, as well as add a weekly or semi-weekly COVID-19 test. Other transit agencies and unions across the country have taken that alternate route.

“We’re just asking for Port Authority to be fair, to hear us and to bargain with us,” she said.

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Vaccinated and unvaccinated workers gathered on Friday to oppose Port Authority’s COVID-19 immunization requirement.

While unvaccinated employees are a small minority at Port Authority — roughly 10% as of Friday — the issue is keenly felt as a matter of principle. Over the course of the pandemic, Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union has negotiated with the agency to create new policies and procedures. However, the vaccine mandate was not negotiated. Employees could apply for medical or religious exemptions, but most were denied.

“What is the basis of that,” Cheatham said. “How can you approve one religious exemption but not the other religious exemption? That is discriminating.”

Rick Cavanaugh also applied for a religious exemption. He is a wireman — “basically an in-house electrician” — who works on Port Authority’s T routes. Cavanaugh said he disagrees with the vaccines because they were “derived from aborted fetal cells. I do not believe in abortion. My lord and savior does not believe in abortion.”

Johnson & Johnson did use fetal cell lines to develop its vaccine, while Moderna and Pfizer used those cell lines to test the efficacy of their vaccines; the cell lines are grown in a laboratory. The original cells that began those lines did come from elective abortions in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, however, no further cells — in other words, no further abortions — have been used.

Fetal cell lines have been used to develop other vaccines, such as the chickenpox and rubella immunizations, as well as to develop new drug therapies. However, the advent of the COVID-19 vaccines again raised concerns about the ethics of a vaccine originally linked to an abortion. In December 2020, the Vatican released a note stating that in most cases the vaccines were morally acceptable because the “cooperation in evil … is remote.”

Cavanaugh also took issue with the reasoning behind the mandate more generally.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman have both said that requiring vaccinations is the most effective way to protect the safety of employees and the public. Seven Port Authority employees have died of COVID-19; three of them died after vaccines were widely available, spokesperson Adam Brandolph said.

Cavanaugh agrees that safety is paramount, “but that word is also used to manipulate and to scare people.”

“If this was really about safety, you would have to show a vaccination card to board the bus, to board the trolley,” and it wouldn’t just be a focus on employees.

Cavanaugh said he never missed a day of work during the pandemic. “Here we are two years later, and all of a sudden now it’s vaccination or out the door.”

People held signs that said “We the people want to work,” “My God is not an option,” and “No jab, no job, no choice.” As they stood on Sixth Avenue, drivers of Port Authority buses, school buses, and cars honked in support, raising cheers from the protestors.

Sidney Davis is a Port Authority bus driver and is vaccinated, but he said he doesn’t think the agency should mandate people to get it.

“It’s a choice,” he said. “Why do you want to force this now? Especially with cases on the downswing?”

Davis said he doesn’t hold it against his coworkers that they’re not vaccinated, and if they get COVID-19, “they made the choice. If I get COVID, I mean, that’s the way it goes.”

Port Authority held nearly 500 people off of work, with pay, on Wednesday when the mandate took effect. Since then, 140 people have provided proof of vaccination, the agency said on Friday.

“We are thrilled to welcome so many of our colleagues back to work,” Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman said in a release.

Of the 340 employees still on leave, 204 remain unvaccinated and 136 have one dose, officials said. They stressed that people who remain unvaccinated could lose their jobs.

Later, after the protest moved to the Allegheny County Courthouse, a car drove by that read “From front line to unemployment line.” The sentiment was keenly felt among protesters, who noted that Friday is national Transit Worker Appreciation Day.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit supports vaccines but has urged Local 85 and the Port Authority to sit down with one another in order to protect public transit.

Transit riders are thankful for the work that employees have put in throughout the pandemic, Cheryl Stephens, a community organizer for PPT, said in a release.

“Transit riders and workers have an important and interdependent relationship, and share similar goals; we uplift transit workers’ right to collective bargaining on issues of job security,” she said. “We need Port Authority to do the same and negotiate a solution with Local 85 that results in improvements to both service and safety.”

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at