Local unions representing bus drivers, hospital food service workers, care providers and janitors marched down Forbes Avenue in Oakland Monday morning. The demonstration was part of a national #BlackWorkersMatter movement which seeks to draw attention to income inequality and systemic racism within labor.
Black people disproportionately work in front-line jobs including grocery stores and public transit, and are more likely to face exposure to COVID-19 as a result. Steve Kelley, a cleaner with SEIU 32BJ, told the crowd that it's nice to be called a hero, but that essential workers need more than words.
“We are out on the front lines along with the nurses, the doctors and the rest of them risking our lives and risking our families. The obligatory pat on the back is no longer enough,” he said. Kelley called for more personal protective equipment on the job in addition to hazard pay and paid sick leave.
Organizers also demanded equitable advancement opportunities and the right to form a union free from intimidation and harassment.
Protesters said their employers aren’t doing enough for employees and called Black Lives Matter statements by UPMC and others inadequate.
Alex Cutler, a food service worker with UPMC, said her employer’s public support of Black Lives Matter doesn’t line up with her experience behind the scenes. She claimed to have seen workers wearing soiled or ripped face masks on the job, which could put them at risk of exposure to COVID-19. She demanded hazard pay and the right to form a union. There have been unsuccessful unionization efforts by some UPMC workers in recent years.
Karima Howard, a Port Authority of Allegheny County bus driver, said her union has offered her protection when it comes to pay and medical benefits. She serves as the Vice President of the Black Caucus Chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union. She said unions benefit everyone.
"It doesn't matter what color you are. You all get that same wage," Howard said. "That happens with organized labor."
Elected officials marched with protesters, too. They included State Reps. Jake Wheatley, Summer Lee, Sara Innamorato, Dan Frankel, Austin Davis; Pittsburgh City Councilor Erika Strassburger; and State Sen. Lindsey Williams.
Lee, who represents neighborhoods including Braddock, Forest Hills and Rankin, encouraged those present to pressure elected officials to pass worker protections, and vote them out if they don’t. She called on protesters to vote in all elections and run for office to make the changes they want to see.
“Our next County Councilor, County Executive, our next Mayor, our next State Rep … could be sitting right here,” she said.