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Union Jacked

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This coming fall, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will pack their skates and sticks as they travel from Mellon Arena to the new Consol Energy Center across the street. But it's uncertain whether the Igloo's 400 concession workers and other behind-the-scenes staff will make the same trip.

Since 1991, Philadelphia-based Aramark has operated concession stands and kiosks at Mellon Arena, selling food and merchandise to hockey fans. And thanks to a 10-year deal signed by Aramark and the Penguins in 2008, the company will remain the exclusive concessionaire when the team's new arena opens this fall. 

But the workers themselves have no such guarantee.

"We cannot make any [job] guarantees," says Aramark spokesperson Kristine Grow. "We will require all employees to fill out applications and go in for interviews." 

Union officials, however, say it makes sense to transition veteran workers to the new arena.

"We think it would be fair that the current employees have jobs at the new facility," says Jen Blatz, a staff representative for Unite Here Local 57. 

Grow says that having workers reapply for their jobs is standard procedure when Aramark moves to a new venue. She adds that employees' prior service will be taken into consideration during the application and interview process. But workers will have to beat out other outside applicants to hold onto their jobs. (Employees have at least some reason to be optimistic, though: Grow says Aramark expects to hire 600 workers at the new facility -- 200 more than currently work at Mellon Arena.)

And workers aren't the only ones who have something at stake: Their union will have to reapply for the right to represent them as well. 

Roughly 300 of Aramark's vendors and concession workers are members of Unite Here Local 57. But the union's contract with the company expires March 31. And Grow says a new contract will be negotiated only if the majority of new hires at the Consol Energy Center decide they want to unionize. 

Jobs in and around the Penguins' new arena have already been the focus of much scrutiny. The community benefits agreement (CBA) signed in 2008 by local politicians, Penguins officials and Hill District residents sought to ensure the Hill benefited from the arena and adjoining development. The agreement never guaranteed neighborhood residents jobs, but the Pens committed to "first considering and interviewing for employment candidates that are Hill District residents" whenever job opportunities arose. 

The Aramark transfer has prompted concerns that union workers could end up fighting with Hill residents for the arena jobs. (Unions, ironically, played a large role in helping the community win a CBA.) 

"The community will stand in support of the workers," says Carl Redwood, convener of the Hill District Consensus Group. "Their jobs should transfer without having to reapply. Their seniority should move with them, and their union should move with them."

Mary Conturo, executive director of the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns Mellon Arena and Consol Energy Center, declined to comment for this story. Tom McMillan, the Penguins' vice president of communications, also could not be reached for comment.

Although Aramark's decision to open hiring at the new arena to everyone will increase the chances that Hill residents will find work, Redwood says the company would be foolish to try playing the workers and the community against each other.

"If Aramark does something like that," he says, "they'll be making a big mistake."

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