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Employee-Owned Companies Give PA Workers A Stake

Nicklas Supply


On today's program: A conversation about social responsibility when it comes to hate; Obama-era coal pollution rules could dissolve; U.S. hardwoods profit margins are getting axed by the trade war; and more companies in Pittsburgh are giving their employees a say in major decisions. 

What history teaches us about modern antisemitism
(00:00 — 12:29) 

Scholar, author and filmmaker Michael Berenbaum was in Russia last October giving a lecture on antisemitism when he heard what happened at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. He says he was horrified, but not surprised.

“We live in a climate in which people feel free to express their hatred," says Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University. “And those who express hatred have a megaphone, which is called the internet. And they have a support system that did not exist for hatred a generation ago... social media.”

He's among the educators, spiritual leaders and students gathering in Pittsburgh Sunday and Monday at Rodef Shalom Congregation to talk about hate and social responsibility with Classrooms without Borders and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Berenbaum says he's dedicated his life to teaching and sharing stories of antisemitism, in part because it's never too late to show someone the light.

“I think human beings have the capacity for change and growth, that we can do more and that we can expect more from each other.”

Find more information about the conference here.

EPA could roll back coal pollution rules
(13:51 — 17:51) 

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed easing two Obama-era regulations on waste products from coal-fired power plants. The agency wants to ease restrictions on coal ash — the solid residue left over from burning coal — and wastewater from coal plants. In the rule changes announced Monday, plants could have up to three more years to begin closing unlined coal ash ponds, which can leak contaminants into surrounding groundwater. 

For The Allegheny Front, Reid Frazier reports on reaction from the utility industry and environmental groups

PA hardwood industry feels the effects of trade
(17:52 — 22:50) 

The U.S. hardwood industry has lost millions since President Trump sparked a trade war with China, where the market has been key to many Pennsylvania businesses that provide industrial products, like railroad ties, as well as luxury wood for cabinets and floors.

WPSU’s Anne Danahy reports that, as an industry, anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the wood produced in America goes overseas, and of that export share, roughly 90 to 95 percent goes to China.

According to the American Hardwood Export Council, the United States had 31 percent of the hardwood lumber market share in China in 2017. That figure has dropped to 18 percent so far this year.

Employee ownership gives workers ‘skin in the game’
(22:53 — 39:15)

Baby boomers currently own half of the privately-held businesses in the country, according to the Pennsylvania Center for Employee Ownership.

While some will be passed down to family members, many are expected to be sold to out-of-state competitors or private equity groups. That can lead to loss of local jobs and tax revenue, according to Kevin McPhillips, the center’s executive director. 

A new citywide task force, the first of its kind in the country, is encouraging company owners to consider another option: employee ownership. McPhillips says there are more than 300 companies in Pennsylvania that have implemented Employee Stock Ownership Programs (ESOP), including Sheetz, Voodoo Brewery and Silver Star Meats.

Mark Nicklas, president of plumbing wholesaler Nicklas Supply, offered stock ownership to his 65 employees in 2018.   

“I looked at our employees as an extension of our family, and I saw an opportunity for them to be a part of the company, to have ‘skin in the game,’” he says. “I think that’s a great fit for them.”

According to McPhillips, ESOP companies are 8 percent more productive than their privately-held counterparts and are more financially stable.

“Employee ownership is not a magic bullet,” McPhillips says, “but during the [2008-09] recession, employee-owned businesses were 92 percent less likely to lay people off. They find ways to do it.”

The task force, comprised of government officials at the state and local levels, businesses, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Chatham University convenes again Dec. 12.

90.5 WESA’s Avery Keatley contributed to this report.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.
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