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Pittsburgh 'a model for what we believe is possible,' Biden's top labor official says

Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su (right), with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and First Lady Jill Biden.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su (right), with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and First Lady Jill Biden, at a discussion of job-training efforts tied to the construction of a new $1.4 billion terminal for the Pittsburgh International Airport on July 18.

When First Lady Jill Biden came to Pittsburgh to tout her husband’s economic record earlier this week, she did so while standing before the $1.4 billion construction site for a new Pittsburgh International Airport terminal. It’s the kind of photo op no official can pass up when talking about the benefits of federal funding.

But Julie Su, the Biden Administration’s acting secretary of labor, said the White House is also making investments that are harder to capture in a picture frame.

Su said that “Part of the investment in Pittsburgh is to create infrastructure in which we're not just talking physical infrastructure, we're talking workforce infrastructure for people who don't even know that these jobs exist.”

The Biden Administration has targeted Pittsburgh for both kinds of investment. Su said that’s because the administration sees the area as “a model for what we believe is possible.”

That’s partly due to the region’s recovery from the 1980s collapse of Big Steel, and investments in research institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. And for the staunchly pro-labor Biden, another critical factor is “it’s a union town. So we know there [is] strong union organizing to help make sure that the jobs created are good jobs," Su said.

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In many ways, the region is a microcosm for the nation's economic successes and challenges alike. While Pittsburgh universities are homes for cutting-edge research, the technologies they develop are often built far away. While it has a proud union tradition, its labor movement often left out people of color in the past. As it builds an environmentally sustainable energy grid, it must reckon with the impact on areas whose economies have depended on such industries as coal mining.

Su says a combination of factors means this is a “history-making moment” for addressing such concerns.

One factor is Biden’s own policies. By the White House’s accounting, federal investments through a variety of programs have provided nearly $9 billion for nearly 300 infrastructure projects statewide. Biden has focused on the region in other ways, naming Pittsburgh as one of five “workforce hubs” nationwide. The hubs are meant to establish partnerships between government agencies, employers, and unions to ensure a supply of skilled labor.

The administration has also designated southwestern Pennsylvania as an “Energy Community,” in which the government offers tax credits to clean-energy developers to shore up local economies that previously relied on industries such as coal.

The administration hopes to leverage its investments to achieve that goal: “This $2 trillion that’s going to go out — it does give the federal government the ability to say 'We’d like this money to deliver on certain values,'” Su told WESA.

One tool to accomplish that is the project labor agreement, in which workers and employers establish working terms before construction gets underway. Such pacts often focus on avoiding work stoppages, but as Su said during her own speech during the First Lady’s visit, the Biden administration wants to use them to ensure sure that “federal construction projects like this one are staffed by union labor and include important commitments to recruit, train, and hire local workers from underserved communities.”

At the airport itself, such efforts have included a “PIT 2 Work” job-training program, the vast majority of whose participants have been Black.

Politically speaking, such investments can leave out or even antagonize other struggling groups, including white working-class communities around Pittsburgh that have rallied to the banner of former President Donald Trump. But Su says another defining factor of the current moment is that while federal investment is high, unemployment is near historic lows, meaning there is opportunity to go around.

“It doesn't have to be a pie in which people just cut the slices smaller,” Su said. “The pie itself is getting bigger. And that is what is so exciting.”

“When we talk about equity,” she added, “we’re not just talking about people of color. We’re talking about women, we’re talking about folks from rural areas. … That means thinking about who’s currently at the bottom and how we bring them up.”  

It remains to be seen what kind of fruit those efforts will bear politically or economically. Inflation remains a concern, and while it’s well off the highs reached earlier in Biden’s term, polling suggests Biden is still struggling to connect with Pennsylvania voters.

Also, the cutting-edge research officials praise at Pittsburgh universities can have disruptive effects. Even Hollywood actors who belong to SAG-AFTRA (whose members also include most of the newsroom staff of WESA) are on strike in part because of fears that artificial intelligence may soon be used to create on-screen simulacra.

“We have to be vigilant [about] looking at the impact of a rapid change in, say, artificial intelligence,” Su said. But she noted that “at every period of technological advancement, there has been concern: Are they going to take all the jobs? … When you have workers at the table, when you have a union that can help to negotiate what that future's going to look like, you can protect the interests of working people.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.