A recent decision by Pittsburgh's federal labor board should have ended a dispute involving an employer and two unions at Mellon Arena. But with appeals pending, some worry that the battle could be headed for overtime ... while workers continue to sit in the penalty box.
The National Labor Relations Board in Pittsburgh ruled last month that Workers United, not UNITE HERE Local 57, represents workers at dozens of area hotels and other venues, including the Mellon Arena. The two unions have been feuding since last year, after a disputed election caused confusion over whether workers remained members of UNITE HERE or had decided to join Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union [See "Labor Pains," City Paper, Feb. 25].
The labor board's decision ended a six-month investigation, which began after both unions filed charges with the board claiming that numerous local employers refused to negotiate with each respective union.
"It's a victory for our workers and for union democracy," Sam Williamson, a representative of Workers United, told City Paper after first hearing the labor board's decision on March 17. "Now we can focus on what really matters."
What matters most to Mellon Arena employees is getting their jobs to transfer smoothly to the Pittsburgh Penguins' new Consol Energy Center in the fall. On Feb. 12, roughly 400 union workers received a letter from their employer, Aramark, notifying them that they would have to reapply for their jobs when the hockey team moves across the street later this year.
Initially, Aramark claimed that the decision was standard procedure when changing venues. But when the union feud went public after a contentious press conference on Feb. 18, the company argued that the letter stemmed from the fight between the two unions. Representatives of both unions and members of city council, meanwhile, accused Aramark of trying to capitalize on the ongoing union feud.
In a Feb. 24 letter to the company, City Councilor Bill Peduto said he was "surprised and disappointed" by Aramark's decision. "I urge you to rescind your ... letter to Aramark employees immediately," the councilor's letter reads, "and ... [a]gree that all existing Aramark employees will be offered employment in the new Arena."
"We apologize for any confusion our [Feb. 12] letter ... may have caused," Jim Carter, Aramark's general manager, responded in a March 4 letter to Peduto. "[A]t the end of this process, there will be a union representing our employees, and ... it is our present intention to offer employment at Consol Energy Center to our current work force."
But roughly three weeks after the labor board's decision, Aramark has yet to make good on that promise.
Aramark spokesperson Kristine Grow argues that the labor board never formally notified the company about a resolution to the union dispute. "In no respect has the [board] made any ruling on this matter," she wrote in a March 31 e-mail to CP.
Bob Chester, the labor board's regional director in Pittsburgh, says Aramark and all of the other employers involved in the regional feud with the two unions have been notified of the board's decision. "We said to each employer that we believe that Workers United is the [workers'] representative," he says. But "some of the parties are dragging their feet."
As Aramark's Grow points out, however, the dispute between the two unions isn't over. "UNITE HERE has already stated that it intends to appeal" the labor board's decision, she wrote CP. "In the meantime, we continue to receive demands from both [Workers United] and UNITE HERE Local 57, each claiming to represent our employees at the Mellon Arena."
Indeed, UNITE HERE is not backing down.
"We are definitely appealing," says UNITE HERE organizer Ivana Krajcinovic. "There is a long road ahead."
On March 31, roughly a dozen UNITE HERE members distributed fliers to hockey fans milling around Mellon Arena before the Penguins faced off against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Wearing red, white and black UNITE HERE shirts, they passed out fliers headlined, "Will this be our final season?"
"For nearly 49 years UNITE HERE Local 57 members have provided hospitality to the fans," the fliers read. "Aramark ... will be moving over to the Consol Energy Center but does not want to take us with them."
The flier urged fans to call Aramark and the Penguins and encourage them to grant current workers jobs at the new arena.
As he passed out fliers, Zack Zadrowski, vice president of UNITE HERE Local 57, told CP that his union isn't giving up the fight to represent arena workers. But he did acknowledge that Aramark could use the prolonged dispute as an excuse to hold off on guaranteeing workers their jobs at the new arena. "They're going to use all the tools they can," he said.
Grow did not respond to an e-mail asking whether Aramark will delay promising workers their jobs at the new arena because of the pending UNITE HERE appeal. But Peduto says he's afraid they might.
"I hope they don't," he says. "That could tie this up."