You Asked Questions on Climate Change in Pittsburgh. We Got Answers.

A recycling container in Construction Junction’s drop-off lot in North Point Breeze. The poster shows the bottles, cans, tubs, jugs and jars that can be recycled in the City of Pittsburgh. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

From what’s being done to support electric vehicles and composting to how the Green New Deal would affect Pittsburgh’s historic buildings and churches, this Q&A covers it all.

By Juliette Rihl
Public Source

Sept 18, 2019 – As part of the Covering Climate Now global reporting initiative, we asked you, our PublicSource readers, to tell us what you wanted to know about climate change in Pittsburgh. We selected six of your questions and answered them for you below.

1. Is there any chance of a plastic bag ban? How big of a difference would it make?

It’s difficult to evaluate chances for a plastic bag ban but the chances of it happening before 2021 are slim. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation that prevents municipalities from banning or taxing plastic bags until the end of 2020. In the interim, state agencies are researching the potential impact of such bans. Pittsburgh City Council unanimously opposed the legislation in a letter to Wolf on June 27.

Councilwoman Erika Strassburger said city council is looking into ways to decrease plastic bag consumption. If legislation is enacted at the city level after the end of 2020, a focus would be on equity, she said. “If there’s a [plastic bag] fee involved, we don’t want the burden to be on those who have the least ability to pay a fee,” Strassburger said.

Some local organizations and businesses are taking matters into their own hands.

Animal welfare organization HUMANE ACTION Pittsburgh, for example, started an initiative called “no plastic please” to encourage local residents and businesses to reduce their consumption of plastic. Although the initiative has broad community support, director Sabrina Culyba said getting retailers to opt in has been challenging. “A lot of businesses, their bottom line is at stake when it comes to making these switches,” she said. HUMANE ACTION Pittsburgh’s website lists participating restaurants and retailers.

Giant Eagle is currently conducting its own research on how to decrease the use of plastic bags in its stores. “Historically, Giant Eagle’s focus has been on recycling… But as an organization committed to our communities and our planet, we recognize that we have a responsibility to do more,” Dan Donovan, director of corporate communications, wrote in an email to PublicSource.

In a 2019 report by the environmental campaigning organization Green Peace on grocery store chains and plastic pollution, Giant Eagle scored poorly; it was ranked No. 16 out of 20 retailers for its overall practices regarding single-use plastics. Giant Eagle operates nearly 500 grocery and convenience stores.

While reducing plastic bags is one step toward sustainability, it’s not a fix-all solution. Sustainable Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable development in the region, is facilitating cross-sector conversations on how to tackle the problem of single-use plastics in the region. “It’s going to take more conversations to figure out what we can do here,” Executive Director Joylette Portlock said. “Because it’s not just straws, and it’s not just plastic bags.”

And, reusable bags aren’t a perfect solution. Studies show that the environmental impact of producing one reusable bag is the same as producing 131 plastic bags.

2. How much interest or investigation has there been into starting a compost waste program in the city?

The City of Pittsburgh accepts yard debris and Christmas trees at certain drop-off locations, but does not provide disposal of other forms of organic waste. Department of Public Works Director Mike Gable wrote in an email to PublicSource that the idea of a citywide compost program is being discussed, but no plans have been made yet. The City’s “Zero Waste” program aims to divert 90% of waste from landfills by 2030.

The absence of a citywide compost program isn’t due to a lack of interest. Laura Codori, founder of the local vermicompost company Worm Return, said she often gets calls from people asking if there is a compost drop-off site or pickup service. “People want to do this,” Codori said. She recently co-proposed a compost drop-off program to the Department of Innovation with Anthony Stewart of the environmental consulting firm DECO Resources.

3. If the Green New Deal or a similar proposal were to be enacted, what would that mean for Pittsburgh’s historic buildings and churches?

While the version of the Green New Deal that was struck down by the Senate in March doesn’t address historic buildings specifically, it does call for “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States.” However, buildings with historic designation are exempt from the International Building Code’s energy code at this time. They’re not subject to the same energy standards. It’s hard to say if, or how, future legislation could change that. Continue reading You Asked Questions on Climate Change in Pittsburgh. We Got Answers.

Trump Administration’s Snap Change Is ‘Cruel And Mean-Spirited’

Wolf’s State Human Services Secretary Denounces Measure

By J.D. Prose
Beaver County Times

Sept 23, 2019 – Calling the Trump administration’s proposed changes to a federal food assistance program “cruel and mean-spirited,” a cabinet secretary for Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday that 200,000 Pennsylvanians could lose their benefits.

“The Wolf administration vehemently opposes this change,” said Pennsylvania Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller in a conference call with reporters about the possible changes to eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps.

Miller’s department estimates that 2,544 Beaver County residents and 1,564 Lawrence County residents could lose their benefits under the plan.

President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed prohibiting states from raising or eliminating income limits that allows them to give federally-funded food benefits to people who would not otherwise qualify.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the change would save $2.5 billion a year, but supporters of the current system say it would hurt struggling low-income families, children, seniors and the disabled.

Trump administration officials have also argued that changing the rule would help reduce cases of fraud, but Miller said that in Pennsylvania the fraud rate in SNAP is just 1 percent and “lower than every other human services program.”

Miller said that a Pennsylvania family of four is eligible for SNAP benefits if it earns a maximum of $40,000 annually. However, under the Trump administration’s proposed change, that same family would only be allowed to earn $32,000 or less to be eligible, leaving many families without access to food.

“SNAP helps low-income families reliably keep food on the table without choosing between basic needs,” Miller said. Continue reading Trump Administration’s Snap Change Is ‘Cruel And Mean-Spirited’

Montgmery Locks And Dams Repairs ‘Should Be Dealt With Now’

Green jobs for cleaner bulk transport

By J.D. Prose
Beaver County Times

USep 17, 2019 – POTTER TWP. — Tuesday offered beautiful weather for a tugboat ride on the Ohio River to view the Shell Chemicals’ ethane cracker plant site, but it was a distressing situation on those same waters that concerned an influential Ohio congresswoman.

After touring the Montgomery Locks and Dam at the invitation of U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17, Mount Lebanon, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Toledo Democrat, expressed dismay at the crumbling condition of the 83-year-old structure.

“It’s a poster child for why Congress needs to pass an infrastructure bill and why the president needs to sign it,” said Kaptur, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and chairwoman of that committee’s subcommittee on energy and water development.

“This is really serious here,” said Kaptur, noting the cracks in the locks and damn officials pointed out to her on the walking tour. “This should be dealt with now, not five years from now, not 10 years from now. Now.”

A $1.09 million project to temporarily fix the damaged middle-lock wall began about a year ago with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimating that it had a 50 percent chance of failing in the next decade if it were not addressed.

A catastrophic failure would halt all river traffic, officials warned, and would significantly damage the regional economy. With construction on Shell’s $6 billion cracker plant now in full swing, repairing the locks and dam is even more vital, Lamb said.

“Fixing the locks and dams, especially the Montgomery Locks, is one of the most import infrastructure needs of western Pennsylvania, and it’s one that we can actually do,” Lamb said. “It’s cracked concrete, and we know how to fix that.”

Lamb and Kaptur were joined on the tour by officers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mary Ann Bucci, the executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, and Matt Smith, the president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and a former Allegheny County state senator.

The group toured the locks and dam and then climbed aboard a Campbell Transportation Co. tugboat to soak in a river view of the cracker plant before returning to shore.

Smith said keeping the Ohio River navigable for goods and products is essential to the region’s success.

“It’s billions of dollars of economic development,” he said.

Part of Lamb’s job now is convincing House colleagues in leadership roles, such as Kaptur, that the region’s locks and dams must be upgraded immediately.

In an April letter to Kaptur and her subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Lamb and four colleagues — U.S. Reps. Guy Reschenthaler, R-14, Peters Township; Mike Doyle, D-18, Forest Hills; David McKinley, R-W. Va.; and Bill Johnson, R-Ohio — asked for the “highest possible increase” in funding for the Corps of Engineers’ account for pre-construction, engineering and design.

The bipartisan group noted that the account was funded at $125 million in the 2019 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, which is $48 million higher than the $77 million requested in the 2020 fiscal year budget.

Appropriating the highest amount would allow for the Upper Ohio Navigation Project to pursue funding. The region’s locks and dams fall under that project.

Kaptur credited Lamb with bringing photos of the Montgomery Locks’ condition to a subcommittee hearing to prove how bad the situation is there.

“A picture is worth a thousand words. We’re all very proud of America and proud of the places that we come from and when you see a cracked and degraded piece of infrastructure it makes you feel a little bit of ashamed,” Lamb said.

“That’s our responsibility as public officials … to maintain and improve that stuff so we can have a good quality of life,” he said. “I think the picture really communicates that, that we’ve let this go on for way too long and its urgent that we fix it right away.”

Pittsburgh Google ‘Contract’ Workers Start Unionization Process, Bosses Prep Union-Busting Campaign

White-collar workers join with United Steelworkers for collective bargaining rights.

By Vasuki R
Liberation News

Sep 11, 2019 – Last week, the Pittsburgh Association of Tech Professionals filed a petition on behalf of tech employees at HCL Technologies, a contractor for Google in Pittsburgh.

These 90 employees perform essential work for the Google Shopping platform alongside full-time employees, but with reduced benefits, pay and job security. Through this mechanism of sub-contract work, Google has maintained its reputation as a generous and fair employer — despite the fact that temps, vendors and contractors form a “labor underclass” that comprises over half of Google’s global workforce.

Over two thirds of the workers at HCL signed cards seeking union representation. They organized on the basis of directly improving their working conditions, hoping to bargain for better wages and benefits.

HCL employee Josh Borden drew attention to the lack of job security, noting that he and his co-workers “constantly worry about being downsized at any moment while watching our benefits slowly slip away.” With no severance policy and a recession looming, contract workers are stuck in a position of permanent instability. At other contractor sites, the prospect of permanent employment with Google is used to lure white-collar workers into abusive wage theft.

PATP is an arm of the United Steelworkers, formed to fight for better working conditions in the city of Pittsburgh and raise the voices of tech professionals. While workplace activism has long been prominent at Google, this campaign marks a qualitative shift in organizing for tech and contract workers.

Since the announcement of the union drive, USW organizer Damon Di Cicco has seen a surge of interest around the PATP. Unionizing efforts elsewhere in the industry have yet to succeed, but the workers at HCL are demonstrating an actionable path for tech and games workers subjected to miserable working conditions. The date for their union representation election has been tentatively set for the 24th of September.

The path forward will not be without resistance: recently, HCL recently hired consultants from the union-busting law firm Ogletree Deakins. Despite stonewalling requests by workers for better wages, the company is willing to pay exorbitant legal fees to attempt to stop their workers from organizing. Ogletree specializes in defending bosses against discrimination lawsuits, yet was itself sued by a shareholder for gender discrimination before forcing the plaintiff into arbitration.

Forced arbitration is a mechanism by which employees waive their right to a trial as part of their contract, with workplace issues instead adjudicated by third-party arbiters that favor management; ending this loophole nationally has been a key plank of tech worker organizing.

Ogletree has set up space at a hotel near the office, with the classic strategy of trying to create division within the campaign by dissuading workers one by one. Working closely with Ogletree is the Labor Relations Institute, a “preeminent firm in countering union organizing campaigns”, which boasts a client list that includes Kronos Foods and Trump Hotel. These firms have been brought on as “neutral advisors that will educate workers about their rights”, despite overtly advertising “union avoidance” services.

HCL has clearly demonstrated little respect for the legal right of workers to organize themselves, and it remains to be seen whether Google itself will directly intervene with its own anti-worker retaliation apparatus. In these crucial coming weeks, solidarity and militancy will keep the workers united as they fight for democracy and the ability to collectively bargain.

To follow the campaign and stay updated on the best ways to support the workers, sign up for email updates at pghtechprofessionals.org/join

Mayor Bill Peduto Introduces Bill To Eliminate Carbon Emissions Produced By Local Government Buildings

Urban Solar underway in Philadelphia

By Amanda Waltz
Pittsburgh City Paper

Sept 3, 2019 – When President Donald Trump famously namedropped Pittsburgh in his reasoning for exiting the global Paris Agreement on climate change, Mayor Bill Peduto was quick to take a stand by voicing his city’s commitment to lowering emissions that contribute to global warming. Now, two years after the incident, Peduto appears to be continuing with that mission, as he introduced new legislation today to Pittsburgh City Council that would require all new or renovated government buildings to be net-zero, meaning they produce as much energy as they consume.

Peduto believes the bill would not only help meet goals outlined in the City of Pittsburgh’s Climate Action Plan 3.0, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050, it would also significantly lower municipal energy costs.

“Pittsburgh is taking real steps to meet its energy goals, and moving to net-zero construction will be one of the most meaningful and impactful actions we’ve ever taken,” Peduto stated in a press release. “It is not only the right move for the planet, but for the city’s budget too.”

City of Pittsburgh Chief Resilience Officer, Grant Ervin, seconded Peduto in a tweet, in which he called the bill, “A major policy tool to lower city governments carbon emissions, save money over time and upgrade public facilities.”

The World Green Building Council, a global network committed to reducing the building and construction sector’s CO2 emissions, defines net-zero buildings as “highly energy efficient and fully powered from on-site and/or off-site renewable energy sources,” such as solar or wind. The council believes that, in order to help mitigate global warming, all buildings must meet net-zero emission standards by 2050.

In Pittsburgh, the proposed ordinance would cover all construction of new buildings and all major renovations of existing buildings on City-owned property. A press release stated that buildings are the “largest end-users of energy in the world,” and Pittsburgh, along with other cities, is looking at more ways to tackle the current climate crisis. The effort aligns Pittsburgh with Los Angeles and New York City, both of which recently moved toward energy-efficient or zero-emission construction and renovation methods.

There would be some exemptions, however, including renovations of buildings that are being decommissioned or sold within five years, emergency renovations, and short-term buildings such as trailers.

The announcement follows a report released in August by the Planning Department’s Sustainability and Resilience Division, which said reducing the energy used by municipal buildings could cut the City’s annual energy costs, totaling $2,700,000, in half.

A public hearing will be scheduled on the bill.

Conway Workers, Local Leaders Caught Off Guard By Norfolk Southern Job Cuts

By Chrissy Suttles
Beaver County Times

Sep 4, 2019 – CONWAY — Norfolk Southern Railway did not give local leaders prior notice before cutting more than 50 employees at the Conway Yards switching station Tuesday.

“I read it in the newspaper this morning,” Beaver County Commissioner Tony Amadio said, echoing statements by state Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., R-47, New Sewickley Township, and others throughout the county.

When management told roughly 55 mechanical workers they would be laid off, many were caught off guard.

“It was mostly mechanics and electricians who were let go,” said one person who still works at Conway Yards and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Someone from corporate came in to reassure everyone afterward, but he sidestepped our questions. We’re frustrated with how it’s been handled.”

Those who lost their jobs will retain a number of company benefits for the next several months, but it’s unlikely anyone will return to work.

Norfolk Southern announced an additional 100 layoffs at the Juniata Locomotive Shop in Altoona, but some of those electricians may relocate to Beaver County to work at Shell Chemicals’ ethane cracker plant, the Altoona Mirror reported.

The Conway Yards, which snakes along the Ohio River in Freedom and Conway, is one of the largest rail yards in the country. Norfolk Southern Vice President of Communications Tom Werner said the eliminated positions were no longer vital to railway operations as the company moves to precision-scheduled railroading – or parking locomotives, cutting travel time and reducing jobs to better match peer performance.

Earlier this year, railroad representatives revealed plans to eliminate 3,000 positions companywide by 2022 to hit financial goals. While a declining coal industry is partly to blame, the Virginia-based rail carrier has gradually increased its transport of chemicals, steel and lumber in recent years.

“On-time performance and train speed is hitting records highs, and terminal dwell is becoming lower than any time in memory,” Werner said. “That’s all good for serving the customers. The downside for our employees in mechanical is that fewer locomotives means fewer locomotives to be maintained.” Continue reading Conway Workers, Local Leaders Caught Off Guard By Norfolk Southern Job Cuts

SEIU President Rallies Workers in Pittsburgh on Labor Day

By Marylynne Pitz

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union for nearly 10 years, organized health care employees during the late 1990s at a major Catholic hospital system in California.

Before Pittsburgh’s Labor Day Parade began, Ms. Henry urged local union members during a rally at Freedom Corner in the Hill District to continue fighting, despite the legal odds.

“The right to organize doesn’t exist any longer in the U.S. We have an 80-year-old law that is broken,” Ms. Henry on Monday told a large crowd that included boilermakers, carpenters, journalists, postal carriers, shipbuilders and steamfitters.

“UPMC workers have been trying to form a union since 2012. Ten thousand hospital workers have been trying to get to a bargaining table,” Ms. Henry said.

UPMC has announced that its hourly workers will earn $15 an hour in 2021.

The SEIU’s plan, called Unions for All, envisions workers organizing and bargaining across industries instead of the workplace-by-workplace system currently used in the U.S.

“Bargaining by industry, where workers from multiple companies sit across a table from the largest employers in their industry to negotiate nationwide for wages and benefits, is standard practice in almost every developed country in the world,” Ms. Henry said.

The SEIU also wants to ensure that every public dollar creates union jobs and that every federal worker and contractor earns at least $15 an hour and has the chance to join a union.

One of the UPMC employees who marched in the parade was Nila Payton of East Hills, who belongs to Hospital Workers Rising.

A UPMC receptionist for 13½ years, Ms. Payton said a union survey found that at least 5,000 UPMC employees are in debt to their employer for medical care.

“They steer us to Medicaid. Some of us make too much to get Medicaid. Some people are actually scared of going to the doctor for fear of going into medical debt,” Ms. Payton said.

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon, said federal labor law is “in urgent need of an update” because employers can play “lots of tricks” to delay bargaining.

“We need to level the playing field, ” Mr. Lamb said.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the former mayor of Braddock, served as the parade’s grand marshal. Other politicians attending included Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.

Marchers walked down Grant Street, past the historic marker for Henry Clay Frick, just outside the building named for the industrialist.

Many trade unionists remember Frick for provoking violence by hiring 300 Pinkerton agents armed with Winchester Rifles during the bloody Homestead steel strike of 1892.

On the Boulevard of the Allies, where the parade ended, marchers passed the Red Door, where volunteers at St. Mary’s Parish were giving sandwiches to the homeless.

Continue reading SEIU President Rallies Workers in Pittsburgh on Labor Day

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