It was the first of what will be a series of meetings in North Side neighborhoods explaining the concept of community benefits agreements, and gathering input from residents as to how a C.B.A. might capitalize upon casino development, and mitigate against its negative consequences.
Khari Mosley of Pgh UNITED facilitated the meeting -- although most questions were fielded by Edward D. Pugh, employed by the state Auditor General (though taking part wholly as a private community resident), and in some cases Michael Aaron Glass, Executive Director of Northside Common Ministries.
When the Comet arrived, the rules were posted front and center:
1. Assume Good Faith.
2. Speak in Turn.
3. Every question is a good question, but some questions need to be tabled.
Mosley defined a legitimate C.B.A. as not a demand for money, but demands concerning how a site will be developed, how the jobs scene will play out, and additional programs that would benefit the larger community.
Although it is appropriate for Hill District residents to ask for money, explained the presenters, considering the massive public subsidy to the Penguins, little of that can apply to the North Side. Although PITG Gaming was the recipient of a valuable public license, its responsibility for the well-known deleterious effects of gambling was the paramount issue.
Nonetheless, Don Barden garnered a lot of respect throughout the room. Credit was given for how he pursued Pittsburgh's slots license, for how he bested the Steelers and Pirates on traffic concerns, and even for the deal he inked with the North Side Leadership Conference.
"He's from Detroit," said one resident. "We can't run no game on him."
Further comments from Manchester residents were diverse and illuminating, when they were asked to offer ideas on how a C.B.A. might benefit their community.
"Focus on Manchester, instead of ... [the three corridors where the NSLC has earmarked half of the $3 million]."
"We don't need a community center in Manchester. We don't need a community center in Northview Heights, in this place and that place. We need a North Side community center."
"What about programs for educational opportunities?"
"We should have done this long ago ... we didn't need to wait around for a casino. We don't stand up around here. Somebody said a Pittsburgh protest is crying on each other."
"When we talk about kids in our community, our kids aren't in unions." (This was said clearly to indicate she would like her kids in unions.)
"I don't see why you're limiting yourselves, and putting yourselves in a box." ("We're not doing that.") "Once you're trained, if you don't get a job in the casino, they can get a job somewhere else!"
Being a North Side resident ourselves, we raised a concern previously alluded to during the meeting: background checks.
We had heard that all casino employees would be subject by state law to multiple, rigorous, exhaustive criminal background checks. Our concern was that this might keep casino jobs from benefiting those in the casino's own backyard, who need them most.
Michael Glass rose to address this concern. "I guarantee you that if Mr. Barden goes to the state, and asks for a waiver for people who work on the North Side, or they don't deal ..." that Mr. Barden could get what he wants for the residents.
Mosley agreed that "expungements or waivers" could be sought as part of a C.B.A. to mitigate the difficulties of background checks.
Toward the meeting's conclusion, Edward Pugh, who spoke often of the necessity of maintaining a united front, read from the recent Tribune-Review article amplifying criticism from NSLC officials and others.
"An upstart citizens group," he said, pausing for emphasis, "that protested meetings on Pittsburgh's planned casino, is using concerns about community involvement as a disguise to pave the way for union presence at the North Shore gambling venue."
"It's debasing us," Pugh contended. He warned that if meeting attendees went home gossiping and grousing about their meetings, "some snot-nosed kid" is going to write the same thing about Manchester.
We had a good discussion with Pugh after the meeting about the balance between allowing for a necessary and transparent airing of differences on the one hand, and the necessity of displaying unity on the other. He offered that one key is that "nobody should go home from the meetings angry."
We also spoke at length with Tom Hoffman, Pittsburgh UNITED's executive director and former programs director for SEIU Local 3. He had raised concerns during the meeting about environmental impacts -- "What about a big building that's going to have a lot of bathrooms right next to the river?" -- but we asked him about the perception that Pgh UNITED exists to push union organization.
He explained that both on the Hill and in the North Side, Pgh UNITED is conducting extensive and honest research to discover what matters most to community residents -- and good jobs are always a high priority.
We both agreed that during this particular meeting, job training seemed to be the priority subject, and he seemed genuinely enthused about that. He said it reflected much of what they have heard elsewhere.
Yet Hoffman insisted that unionization is the only way to guarantee that the casino jobs will be decent and family-sustaining -- especially the service-sector jobs -- and that residents do recognize that.
He also contended that the of process demanding a union election from scratch is so difficult, and so time consuming, with so many ways for management to corrupt the process, that a "card-check" agreement (in which management agrees to voluntarily recognize the union if a majority of employees sign authorization forms) is a reasonable demand.
As we continued to ask whether or not Pgh UNITED, in its zeal to provide for good-paying jobs, might ever have been guilty of giving short-shrift to other community concerns, Hoffman could find only so many ways to say "no."
"If you want to call me a shill for the unions, go ahead," he said. "It's still the only way to guarantee these jobs will be any good."
Hoffman pointed us in the direction of www.communitybenefits.org, a resource highlighting successful examples of C.B.A.'s, many of which have little to do with union organizing. He also emphasized the multiple layers of input-seeking and surveying that Pgh UNITED conducts, in order to ensure that real community concerns are brought to the fore.
Here is the text of the survey that Pittsburgh UNITED distributes at meetings such as the one held in Manchester:
Which are the 4 issues most important to you?
___ Public Safety/ Safe Streets
___ Services for Seniors
___ Parks and Green Spaces
___ Drug Rehabilitation Programs
___ Good-paying jobs for Northside Residents. (with family-sustaining wages and benefits)
___ Job Training and Adult Education
___ Family Support Services
___ Home Rehabilitation Program
___ Financial Literacy Program (Credit Repair, Homeownership classes, Financial Services)
___ Youth Programs
___ Community and Economic Development, including loans to small businesses