In October of last year, over 100 workers represented by five labor unions—including production, distribution, advertising, and accounts receivable staff—walked off the job on an unfair labor practice strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The strike began after the newspaper’s management, Block Communications, which is owned by the Block family, cut off health insurance for employees on Oct. 1. As Michael Sainato reports at The Guardian, “The strike is unfolding in a US media industry that has seen widespread layoffs over the past decade with newspapers hit especially hard. Workers at the Post-Gazette have been working without a union contract since March 2017, claiming they haven’t received any pay raises in 16 years.”
Workers are approaching their sixth month on strike, and it has been a long, ugly fight. This past weekend, according to a press release from The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, “A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scab truck driver assaulted two striking workers at a South Side picket line late Saturday night. The unprovoked assault sent one striker to the hospital with a broken jaw, which required surgery. Both workers were stripped of their health insurance by actions of the PG.” In this episode, we talk with Steve Mellon, a veteran multimedia journalist and staff photographer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Time, and USA Today. We talk with Steve about his career in journalism, how the industry has changed over the past 30 years, what it’s been like to be on strike for the past five months, and what we can all do to help.
Additional links/info below…
- Steve’s Twitter and Website
- Donate to Support Striking Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Workers
- The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh website, Facebook page, Twitter page, and Instagram
- The Pittsburgh Union Progress website, Twitter page, and Instagram
- Steve Mellon, University of Pittsburgh Press, After the Smoke Clears: Struggling to Get By in Rustbelt America
- Michael Sainato, The Guardian, “Pittsburgh Newspaper Workers Go on Strike Over Unfair Labor Practice“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “Striking Workers Need Our Help to Keep Fighting in 2023“
- Jamie Wiggan, Pittsburgh City Paper, “Striking Worker Struck in the Face as Post-Gazette Labor Angst Spills Over“
- Jordana Rosenfeld, Pittsburgh City Paper, “Judge Finds Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Management Violated Workers’ Rights“
Permanent links below…
- Leave us a voicemail and we might play it on the show!
- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)
- Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song
Steve Mellon: My name is Steve Mellon. I’m a photographer and writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I’ve been in the business since 1981 in several different capacities. I was a City Hall reporter for a while at a small newspaper in Kentucky. I went from that to being a sports editor for a few years at a newspaper in Indiana, and I jumped in photography. I still did some writing, but I got heavily into photojournalism in the ’80s and ’90s. I ended up in Pittsburgh in ’89, and I worked here until the Pittsburgh Press strike in 1992. I endured that strike, but at the end of it, I just said, to heck with the newspaper business. I was on a self-imposed exile for about five years. I joined the Post-Gazette in ’97. I got sick of freelancing for a number of different reasons, and I’ve been here since until the strike began on Oct. 18.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome, everyone, to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
So as y’all heard, we’ve got a really important episode for y’all today. We are recording this on Tuesday, March 14, and we’re going to try to turn this around relatively quickly. Even though this is a regular season, full-length episode, I will not be recording a separate introduction for it, so that we can get my conversation with Steve out as soon as possible. Because I’m sure if you guys listen to this show, you have been following the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette strike, which as Steve mentioned, has been going on since October of last year.
Things have been really, really heating up, including this week, and I’m going to get to that in a second, but this is a struggle that we all really need to be invested in. Our fellow workers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have been holding the line for many months now. They’ve been facing a lot of union busting bullshit from their parent company and dealing with the daily strain and costs – Psychological, monetary, and otherwise of being on strike for this long. And it’s important for all of us, people who support them from around the country and beyond to really step up, and have their backs, do whatever we can to not only help them hold the line, but to help them win the contract that they deserve.
And so we’re going to dig into the strike and the recent developments with Steve, but we’re also going to get to know a bit more about him. We’re going to talk about his pathway into journalism and eventually working at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and then we’re going to really dig into the strike itself. But in case you guys haven’t heard much about this strike, or you remember hearing about it, but haven’t updated things since then, I wanted to set the table really quick and give you the basic bullet points here, and I’m going to start by reading a passage from a piece that was published in The Guardian in November by our friend and comrade Micheal Sainato – Shout out to Michael, who finally got hired as a staff reporter at The Guardian after many, many, many years doing incredible labor coverage there as a freelancer. Well-deserved, Michael. You’re going to do great work out there, brother.
But in November, writing on the strike at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Michael writes, “More than 100 workers represented by five labor unions at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are currently on an unfair labor practice strike, including production, distribution, advertising, and accounts receivable staff. The strike initially began after the newspapers’ management, Block Communications owned by the Block family, cut off health insurance for employees on 1 October after refusing to pay an additional $19 a week per employee to maintain the existing coverage.
“The strike is unfolding in a US media industry that has seen widespread layoffs over the past decade with newspapers hit especially hard. Workers at the Post-Gazette have been working without a union contract since March 2017, claiming they haven’t received any pay raises in 16 years. ‘We had no alternative but to strike,’ said James VanLandingham, a mailer at the Post-Gazette for 28 years. ‘Over the years, they’ve always paid for our healthcare. Once Block senior passed away, the two nephews took over and everything went downhill. They’ve totally disregarded all of their employees.'”
Now, before I toss things back to Steve, I wanted to also read from a press release that was issued earlier this week on March 12 by the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh. This press release is entitled “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Assaults Striking Workers on Picket Lines, Sending One to the Hospital”. And I’ll just read from the beginning of this press release, “A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scab truck driver assaulted two striking workers at a Southside picket line late Saturday night. The unprovoked assault sent one striker to the hospital with a broken jaw, which required surgery. Both workers were stripped of their health insurance by actions of the Post-Gazette.”
All right, so that is the ground that we’re walking on right now. I mentioned to you guys up top that this has been a very protracted and ugly drag-down knockout fight, and that is all the reason more that we should be supporting Steve and his coworkers in ensuring that they win this crucial fight. And before we really dig into the strike, the past six months, and the events of this past week, Steve, I want to circle back to your introduction there, because there was a lot you said there in that short amount of time that really piqued my interest.
And normally on these episodes, we can really stretch our legs, take our time, and meander our way through a person’s backstory. That’s really my favorite part of doing this show. But again, since we’re focusing more on the strike and what it says about the media industry right now, I wanted to do a condensed version, and focus on your pathway to journalism. So I was wondering if you could say a little more about your journalist origin story? How did you get started on this path? And tell us a little more about what it’s been like walking that path all the way to your time at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Steve Mellon: Well, thanks for asking. I haven’t thought about this in some time, but I went to school in the late ’70s, graduated from high school in ’79… or ’77, I’m sorry, and I was pretty directionless. I had intended to be a school teacher. I went to school for a couple of years, and I took a class. I took one class. I was at a liberal arts school. I took one class and it was a teaching class, and I understood very quickly that teaching wasn’t going to be for me. So I quit that class, and I just kind of meandered around. I ended up taking, just on a lark, I took a class in broadcast news writing, and it was an interesting class, but I’ll tell you what, it intrigued me. The whole business of going out and talking to people, learning about what was happening, telling other people about it, finding out interesting things, it intrigued me.
So I quit school. I went to a commuter school for a year, slept on my parents’ couch, and I ended up going to Eastern Kentucky University, which you don’t think of as a great journalism school. I was actually dating the woman who turned out to be my wife of now 40 years, but I went to visit her, she’s an occupational therapist. She was at school at Eastern Kentucky. So I just went up there to visit her, and I walked through the journalism department and said, hey, what do I need to do to get a journalism degree? And they said, we’ll have you out of here in a year [Max laughs]. So I thought, I was broke anyway. I was working as a hardware salesman, and I was pumping gas. Back then they would still pay people to pump gas.
So I went to Eastern Kentucky University, got a journalism degree, and that was a great year. I didn’t really know anything about journalism, but I learned about journalism, not just about the basics, about reporting, and news writing, and story structure, and those types of things, but I also learned the ideals of journalism, and that really resonated with me, bringing something of value to the community. I’ve never really been motivated by money, so that gave me something to cling to, and that really appealed to me.
I have to say, I had an internship. I graduated in ’81, and I had an internship at United Press International for three months. That was back when UPI was still a going concern, and I wasn’t very good. I was really green, and I wasn’t very good. That was a rough three months. I took a job in Henderson, Kentucky as a city hall reporter, and I did that for about eight or nine months. And I’ll tell you what, I was not good at it. I was not a good journalist. It was not a good start, but I thought, oh, crap, this is going south. So after about a year, I quit that job, and I took a job as a sports editor at a small newspaper in Southern Indiana. They were pretty desperate to get a body in there. So they hired me, and I tell you what, I got my sea legs there. It was a slower pace. I was still really green, but I was able to learn about journalism, learn how to tell stories, learn how to talk to people, learn how to meet deadlines, all those things you have to do in journalism. And I was there for three years, and I loved it.
One of the things that happened there, the editor of that newspaper was a very successful and well regarded photojournalist. He was an interesting guy. At a small newspaper, [but] he was nationally known as a photojournalist. His name was Randy West, and he got me involved in photojournalism, and I was really intrigued by that. It was fresh. It was new to me. This was in the early to mid ’80s, and photojournalism at the time was… There was just a lot of really great work being done in the United States at the newspaper level, a lot of really marvelous black and white documentary photojournalism at places you wouldn’t think of today, places like Des Moines and Louisville, smaller papers, places like Hollywood, California. Miami was doing great work. And I thought, man, this is something. I just really got into it.
And so I became a photojournalist. I worked at Jasper, Indiana. Jasper was at that time a beautiful venue for black and white documentary photojournalism. I was there for about three years and moved down to Knoxville, Tennessee, for one year. I desperately wanted to come to Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Press at the time was the foremost publisher of this very granular documentary, black and white photojournalism. They were doing stories that no one else was doing in the United States, and I desperately wanted to work in Pittsburgh. And so I was in Knoxville for two years, and I was coming to Pittsburgh. I was sending work up to here to show the editors, and they hired me in ’89, in the fall of ’89, I came up to Pittsburgh. And I’ll tell you what, it was a great experience.
The Press had a great staff of photojournalists. The expectations were really high. I mean, they busted my ass every day. There was a lot of pressure, but I thrived in that environment. I was at The Press until I think the strike. I think the Teamsters struck that paper on May 17 of ’91, and that strike dragged on until the end of the year. And at the end of that, the press never recovered from that. Scripps-Howard decided to sell the paper in the midst of the strike. Luckily, they sold it to the Block family here in Pittsburgh. The Block family owns the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and at the time it was headed by Bill Block, and Bill Block was a wonderful guy. He was a great newspaper guy, and he bought The Pittsburgh Press, and he didn’t keep the name, but he kept much of the staff. He kept the unions here, kept the newspapers running.
But I have to tell you, after that ’92 strike, for some reason, and I can’t quite explain it now, but I was really disenchanted with the newspaper industry. The strike really changed me. I covered a lot of the strike, just because I was interested in it. It was a big strike involving a lot of people here in Pittsburgh. It was big news nationally as well as locally. You have to consider at the time, there were only two newspapers in this city. There was a Post-Gazette and The Press, and both of them were out. They were down for the strike. TV was really the only medium at that time – And newspapers played a much bigger role in people’s lives back then. So there were big actions every week, and I got to know a lot of the people in the labor movement here in Pittsburgh.
And once The Press closed, I decided I’d had enough of the newspaper business for a while, so I freelanced. I did a lot of editorial work. I also did a lot of corporate work because it paid the bills. I wasn’t making much money, but I didn’t need much money. We didn’t have any kids at the time.
You know one thing I really missed? I missed the idealism of the newspaper industry. I missed when I was a freelancer, I freelanced as a photographer and a little bit as a writer. The thing that I did not like about that is I felt like a mercenary, that the only thing I was doing was making money. I wasn’t really providing any value to the community whatsoever, very little, and that bugged me. So what I would do is I would make some money and then save some money, and then I would spend a week or two just going to places and talking to people, and I was intrigued with these communities that had depended on an industry that had closed down.
When I first moved to Pittsburgh, my assignment was to cover the Mon Valley where all the steel mills were. And when I got here, those steel mills were mostly closed, and they were still standing there, but there was a lot of friction in those communities, a lot of things I had never seen before. As someone who’d grown up in the Midwest and had spent a little bit of time in the South, I’d never seen anything like this. First of all, I’d never seen a steel mill, I’d never seen industrial facilities this massive. They were still standing in the Mon Valley in places like Homestead, and Duquesne, and McKeesport. These buildings were incredible. They were just massive. And I got to know some of the people in these towns, and I was talking to them about the closure of the mills and how it affected the communities.
And after the closure of The Press, that really resonated with me. When I quit the press, when I quit the newspaper business, the loss of income was a shock, but what bothered me even more was this loss of identity. I was no longer a photojournalist, a newspaper guy. I was no longer that person. I didn’t have that to cling to. And I tell you what, I was just lost. And the only way I could keep my sanity and my sense of direction was by going and talking to these people. And I would take notes and record things. I had a little, back at the time, this little tape recorder. I was recording all these interviews. I spent a lot of time in Homestead, where the mill had closed. There was a very strong union presence in Homestead. I met guys like Mike Stout, Charlie McCollester, these legendary voices in unionism here in the Mon Valley. I spent a lot of time in Duquesne, another Milltown just down the road.
I was intrigued by that, and I was also reading a lot at that point about some of these other towns that had lost… That had depended upon a specific industry, and when that industry went belly up, it had a tremendous impact on those communities. One of those was Matewan, West Virginia, the old coal town of Matewan, West Virginia. So I’d get in my car and drive down to Matewan, West Virginia. It’s about six hours from here down the Mountain Roads in Mingo County, West Virginia. So I would go down there and talk to people, do the same thing, talk to people, record the interviews, take some pictures. I spent time in Flint, Michigan. I spent time in Lewiston, Maine, which was an old textile and shoe town. Textiles were big there for decades, and then that industry dried up, and then shoe factories came in, and then the shoe factories all closed down and left everybody high and dry. And of course, I had the time I’d spent in Homestead and in the Pittsburgh area. I did that for, oh, probably four years, three or four years, and eventually I put that together in a book that the University of Pittsburgh Press published back in 2002, a compilation of those stories from those communities.
In the meantime, back in I think it was around ’96 going on ’97, my wife and I, we wanted to have a family. We were getting to be in our late 30s, we wanted to have a family. And at that point, I was thinking about benefits, the need for a regular paycheck. So a job opened up at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and by I think late August of ’97, I was back in the newspaper business. And I’ve been here ever since. I’ve worked here as a photographer. I’ve spent a little bit of time as a picture editor, but mostly, probably 80% of my time has been as a photographer, I do write quite often.
I probably write maybe two dozen stories a year. They tend to be longer stories that I initiate, and we publish those as interactives. So quite often what I’ll do is find a story that I like. Quite often it revolves around work, working life, working people. I’ll do the interviews, I’ll write the story, shoot the photographs or do a video, and it publishes as an interactive piece online. Quite often they run in the paper also, but not always. Sometimes they just run online. And that happened. I mean, that was my life until the 18th of October.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man. I’m transfixed by all of this for a number of reasons. I mean, it’s just always so fascinating to hear people’s different life paths and the places it takes them, from Jasper, to Knoxville, to Pittsburgh, To Mingo County. But also on top of that, obviously, as someone who… I also feel like I found my way into journalism through a basement window, it feels like, and now I get to interview working people for a living, and I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I’m very grateful and honored to be able to do this work, and I’m also very grateful and honored to hear people I look up to like yourself and how you’ve been doing that work for so long. Because in so many ways, it’s like my generation of labor journalists are really trying to carry that torch that you kept lit during some pretty dark fucking times when the labor beat was not doing so hot.
And I wanted to focus on that in two senses. Because on this show, we also really love to talk shop, like let’s lift the hood a bit and give people a sense of what it’s actually like doing the day-to-day labor of being a photojournalist, whether freelance or fully employed at a newspaper. And so I wanted to ask if you could say a little more about that. And maybe in the same breath, your career arc is such an interesting one, because you were riding this wave of paradigmatic change in the media industry. Your career has been punctuated by some pretty seismic changes in this industry, and I was wondering if you could say, after talking to us a little more about that day-to-day labor of doing that reporting work, if you could say a little bit about, looking back, like how you, in doing that work, saw the industry itself change?
Steve Mellon: Sure. Well day-to-day, before the strike, the Post-Gazette is an interesting place, because it was kind of a different paper every two or three years. Depending on the leadership, it would change. I tried to keep my workflow fairly consistent through all those changes, and for the most part, I think I was fairly successful. In a newspaper, like any other news organization, there are things that you have to do and things that you want to do, and so most of my days would start out in the morning trying to figure out, okay, what do I have to do? And quite often I’d have maybe one or two assignments, and sometimes it was stuff that was kind of whimsical and did not seem to me to be all that interesting or didn’t create all that much value, and I try to resist making judgements like that.
I always wanted to give assignments 100%. Like if I’m going to go take a portrait of somebody and it’s for the food section, I’m thinking, okay, I’m going to be there 30 minutes. The guy has 30 minutes, and for 30 minutes, he has my undivided attention. I’m going to give that 100% for that 30 minutes, and try to get that done, do it as good as I possibly can. What I always try to do, though, is keep time open during the day to pursue things that I thought brought value to the community, and that would be pursuing something that is spending time on a story I already had in process, or making phone calls, or going to visit people to see what was going on. I’ve been in Pittsburgh now for more than 30 years, and I know a lot of people, and I just try to keep those contacts up.
A lot of these people, I hate to call them sources, because honestly, I’ve worked with some of these people long enough that they’ve become friends of mine. So I know that can be problematic in the world of journalism, but people know what kind of stories I do and what kind of work I do, and it’s no surprise that a good chunk of the people I talk to about stories, the people who give me stories, usually they come from a labor community or an activist community in the city. So I try to carve out space for that. That’s not always the case. There are some days when big news happens and you just have to spend all day on a particular thing, one particular thing. But over the course of the week, I try to give myself plenty of time to pursue stories that I think have some value to the community, some longer-term value to the community, and those are stories that just help the community understand itself.
Right before the strike, well, back in the summer, I did a story on a family, a family here that had moved to Pittsburgh. They were immigrants from Eastern Europe. They had moved to Pittsburgh, and they had some tragedies in life. I came across this story because Ed Blazina, who was a reporter at the Post-Gazette, he and I were doing a story on ALCOSAN, which is the water and sewer company here in Pittsburgh. And in the process of doing the story, I was doing some historical research. I was doing the visuals for this piece, and it was a big interactive piece with maps and all that kind of stuff. And I found a photograph of the construction of one of the big water processing facilities from like 100 years ago, and it was a strange picture because it was a picture of a construction site with a body in the photograph. And I thought, oh my god. What the hell is going on here?
Well that worker was on the roof of the building, he slipped, and he fell, and he died. And so there just happened to be a city photographer on the site because they were documenting the construction of this building. He took a photograph, and it was in the city archives. So I looked at that picture, and I thought, I wonder who that guy is. Well, his name happened to be attached to the photograph. So I went on to ancestry.com, and I punched his name in, and I got the background. I figured, I saw where he lived, what his background was. I did a little bit more research, and I found some of his relatives still living in Pittsburgh. So I was able to track that family’s story arc from…
Maximillian Alvarez: Wow.
Steve Mellon: They had a number of ups and downs, like all working families. There’s one relative living here in Pittsburgh still. He was in his 80s, but he was able to tell me the story of this working family in Pittsburgh for the last century or so. But stuff like that takes a lot of time. It takes time to not just learn what the facts are, but learn the context of the times. What was life like in Pittsburgh in 1912 when this guy fell off the roof of this building? What was his family up to? How did they survive the loss of that income? What long-term impact did that loss have on the family? These are all questions I had, and it took time to do that, to learn those things and to figure out how to write the narrative. It was a heavily visual story, so we had to come up with photographs that I shot or archival photographs for the piece.
So that’s what I mean when I try to find things like that that add some value to the community. I do a story like that, and I put it out there, and I hope that it helps people in Pittsburgh who are trying to figure this place out, trying to figure out who their families are, how they fit into the story arc of the city. I try to find those stories that have some maybe longer-term value to the community in addition to the things that I have to do, whether it’s just general news coverage of a press conference, or a food picture, a business portrait. That’s kind of the day-to-day thing.
One thing I’ve noticed in the changes in the industry, you’re right, it has been pretty extraordinary. And I don’t think about this too much, because I swim in these waters all the time, but when I first started, when I was a sports editor, I was writing stories on an electric typewriter on paper, and then [crosstalk].
Maximillian Alvarez: I remember my dad’s electric typewriter.
Steve Mellon: Yeah, yeah, you’re a little bit younger than me. But we would type these things up, and then we would… It was cut and paste, literally cut and paste. You didn’t like a paragraph, you tore that paragraph out of your long strip of narrative, and you typed it up again, and then used rubber cement and pasted it in there. So you’d end up with these stories that were, I don’t know, two or three feet long, and we would take them back to the composing room, and they would literally type them in and come up with a long strip of type, and I would be back there helping paste that newspaper together, literally pasting the front page together with halftones. It was a very physical, hands-on process.
And those papers ran through a press. That newspaper was a weekly newspaper, so the press was rolled on Wednesday morning. I would throw the newspapers into my 1973 Volkswagen Beetle, and I spent all day on the road driving to restaurants, grocery stores, small businesses, dropping off newspapers. That was like a five-hour process on Wednesday. So it was a very hands-on way of publishing a newspaper, putting together a newspaper. It put me out in the community, and of course, I was a sports editor in a small town, so within three weeks everybody knew me, and within four weeks everybody hated me. But it put me out in the community in a way that was really, really appealing.
We were still shooting pictures on film, black and white film at the time, and hand processing, printing everything with hand prints. That was the case all through my initial newspaper experience up through the ’90s. When I left the newspaper business that came back in ’97, they had begun the process of digitizing, so we were still shooting on film at the time. We were processing the film and then scanning the negatives. We weren’t making prints. We were scanning the negatives, and that continued up until shortly after 9/11.
The last project I did on film was for the first anniversary one year after 9/11. I hate to call that an anniversary because it’s certainly not something to celebrate. But one of the planes went down not too far from here in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, so that was a big story, a big local story for us. So I spent several weeks shooting pictures for that of people who had some involvement in one way or another in the flight 93 crash here. And after that project was done, we pulled out the film processing machines, and we were 100% digital at that point. So it’s amazing to me now that I can go out and shoot… I do a lot of work for the strike paper quite often. I use loaner cameras because the Post-Gazette took our cameras away. I use my phone quite a bit. When I don’t have a loaner camera, I use my phone, and the pictures are incredible. And I tell you what, I’m 63 years old, and if I don’t have to carry around 25 pounds of camera gear, that’s fine with me. So I can shoot with my phone.
One of the things I think is really cool is there’s so many more tools. 30 years ago, you were either a photographer, or you were a writer, or you were a copy editor. Those were the lanes that you went into, and you had very specific tasks and very unlimited tools to use. I remember when I saw the first video camera in the Post-Gazette newsroom, I think it was around 2004, 2005, I said, what the hell is that? Somebody said, we just got a video camera. I said, I want that thing. I want that goddamn thing. It was intriguing to me to think, we can use film now. I mean, I could be a filmmaker or a videographer. So I jumped into that.
We were doing audio slideshow very early on. I think the first one we did was like 2004, 2005 maybe. We shot a lot of video. Back then, of course, newspapers’ websites were terrible. They didn’t do video very well, but we were doing it. We were pretty early adopters of that technology here. Probably sometime in the early, like shortly after 2010, maybe 2012, something like that, the Post-Gazette decided to start a multimedia department, and I jumped into that. So I was part of a five-member team that really all we did was videos, long form journalism. Back around that time, The New York Times published its what’s now famous “Snow Fall” story, and a lot of newspapers followed suit. We were one of those, so we did several long form stories with that treatment that included a lot of video, a lot of images, texts, maps to tell a story in a deeper manner using all these tools, and I was absolutely fascinated by it.
I loved that period of journalism. There was still enough money in the industry to support that. Newspapers were willing to invest, I think, in those new forms of storytelling. It was like a golden era in multimedia journalism. I’m talking about a period between maybe 2013, 2014 for us up through… I don’t know, for us, I think it lasted about four years, four or five years.
And then of course, there were always changes in the industry, and that money, the multimedia department was dissolved at some point after about four or five years, and we were absorbed into photo. We could still do some of the other things, but we had to do a lot of other things too. So it was a constant balancing act of trying to do those things that took a lot of time, thought, and effort, and a lot of planning, and continue to do the daily journalism. That was the conflict that I faced every day when I got up, and of course, that pressure, it became more and more difficult.
It’s been really difficult in the last year and a half or two years. Management changed at the Post-Gazette. There was less of a willingness to invest in long-term projects. The staff shrunk. If I went and said, I want to spend two days on this story, that meant my colleagues would have to work that much harder to cover the things that I wasn’t there for, and you’re talking about people who were already under the gun and heavily overworked. So that’s been the struggle the last –
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, and I wanted… Oh, sorry. Go ahead.
Steve Mellon: I’m sorry. Go ahead. No, no. I feel like I was rambling there anyway, so go ahead and interrupt.
Maximillian Alvarez: No, again, man, this is super, super fascinating. I was just going to hop in and say on that last point that I think the elephant in the room, or I guess it’s been latent in everything that you’re describing, but just to say it out loud for folks listening, while this time is passing, the past 20 years, let’s say, the media industry, journalism has been in a sustained crisis, and I think there are a number of kind of explanations for it. We don’t have time to go into the entire backstory there, but obviously in the “heyday” of American journalism, the media industry really staked its claim on advertising sales, and like that really being the economic lifeblood that sustains so many national and local newspapers, but also we’re talking radio, we’re talking TV. But if we’re focusing on the newspaper industry specifically, that model was already approaching a crisis, but that really exploded in the digital age.
And we’ve been floundering for an answer ever since. Like with the digital age, the explosion of online content and the increasing abilities to have more targeted ads, or to sell people’s data, and stuff like that instead of trying to market to them with specific advertisements, yada, yada, yada. The point being is that for a journalism industry in the United States that had built itself around this economic model, the digital era really blew that up in a lot of ways. And all the while that Steve has been talking about these changes in the industry, you guys know the other side of that. Local media has been dying, sadly. Local newspapers have been shuttering over the past 20 years, and that only got worse with COVID-19.
Newsrooms have been shrinking. More work has been piled on to fewer workers. More of the industry itself is geared towards the harried race and a competitive race for eyeballs and clicks and shares and so on and so forth. So I just wanted to also add that in there for folks, because I feel like that takes us to where we’re going to start talking about the strike.
Steve Mellon: Right. Right.
Maximillian Alvarez: And how the labor side of things, how the workforce has also changed within the industry, along that same arc that you were just tracing.
Steve Mellon: Mm-hmm (affirmative). One of the ironies is that at a time where we have all these new tools, we have all this new technology to reach people outside, when there was a time when we couldn’t reach anybody outside of a two or three county area, because we could only… As far as we could have a truck deliver a newspaper. Now, we can write stories that appeal to anybody, and yet the economic model has collapsed. So we have all these great tools to tell all these great stories, to tell them to a greater audience than we could have possibly imagined 30 years ago, and yet there’s no money and no staff, and no economic model that I can see now.
And it’s heartbreaking, because I’ve lived in communities where newspapers are incredibly important to communities, and I hope people realize the damage that’s done to a community when a newspaper goes away. When you have entities that are looking at the community on a daily basis and reminding the community of its identity, who its people are, what its values are, that reflects the community in an accurate way, when that goes away, there’s a loss there to the community that cannot be replaced. And we have a lot of really good media outlets in this city, but they all have their own niche audiences. And I guess what I’m missing, and I’m longing for, and I hope that there’s, I don’t know, some genius somewhere that’s coming up with an economic model where we can have a central repository where people can go to and get the information that’s necessary for them, that they feel is important, and that they can see themselves reflected in.
To pivot to the strike, one of the things that was frustrating to me is that I’ve seen increasingly in the last couple of years, newspapers, as they’ve cut back, the values sometimes have changed as ownership changes. When I first got into the business, newspapers were owned largely by families that had been in the business for a long time. They were deeply invested in the communities, and they were willing to live with a smaller profit margin. That has changed, and we see newspaper ownership now, quite often, on many occasions, they have no real connection to the community. These newspapers are owned by people who quite often don’t even live in the community. They don’t understand the community. I think they make decisions about the newspaper that are damaging to the newspaper and its mission.
I see people here in Pittsburgh. I’ve watched as my colleagues have… Over the past several years, there has been more and more work dumped on these folks, and newspaper journalists are an idealistic bunch, and quite often, they’ll put in the extra work. They’ll do what needs to be done because they believe in it, and I’ve seen how that stress has affected my colleagues over the years. Some people who are really dedicated to this profession have left it because it got to be too much. They had families to take care of, they had futures, they were young and very talented, they had other opportunities. They looked at the future of the newspaper industry and said, that’s not someplace I can… I can’t do that. That’s heartbreaking to me. It’s heartbreaking not just for the newspaper industry, but for these communities that could really benefit from having these types of energetic, idealistic journalists among them and producing work on a daily basis.
And that brings us to the strike, because as you mentioned earlier, how we’ve been working without a contract since 2017. We’ve been working under these imposed conditions for what, two years now? Since 2019. And I think what we’re seeing here is what is reflected, that I see in the country at large, is that you have workers who have had enough. They’re standing up and saying, look, my work has value, and we’re going to demand that you recognize that value, that you pay us a fair wage. You treat us like human beings. And when that doesn’t happen, there will be consequences, and the consequences right now is a strike.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and it really does, in this case especially, I feel like that crucial change that you pointed to about changes in ownership, and what that means. This is something that I have definitely heard from people who work on the railroads to people who work at Kroger. Folks that we’ve talked to on this show who can trace over the course of their own careers how much their relationships with management and even ownership have changed, and they describe very similar things to what you’ve described so far. This lack of investment in the work itself and the value of the work, whatever that work is.
We’ve reported numerous times on the tragic case of Evan Seyfried. He was a 20-year Kroger employee out of Ohio, dedicated worker, loved his family, his girlfriend very much, worked his way up with a spotless record to becoming the dairy department manager. But when his store came under new management, management that was following the corporate line from the newest CEO, Rodney McMullen, who came on, I think that was in 2014, and the whole MO of McMullen’s regime was productivity above all else. Increased store sales above all else, cut corners in terms of taking care of your staff. Pile as much work onto your employees as you possibly can, squeeze as much out of them as you can.
And Evan’s family points to these internal changes at Kroger specifically. They point to Rodney McMullen specifically, and they blame him for the tragic events that led to Evan’s death where he was, according to a lawsuit filed by the family, bullied by his managers [until] taking his own life. But this is also what we’ve heard people on the railroads talk about. Before anyone gave a shit about the crisis on the railroads, we were talking to railroad workers relentlessly over the past year and some change, and so many of them were warning us of things like the catastrophe in East Palestine. They were saying that something like that was going to happen because they too have been dealing with relentless staff cuts year after year after year, changes in the relationships with management because those managers are pushing the corporate line, the shareholder line of cutting the operating ratio, cutting operating costs, but increasing profits, increasing shareholder dividends, stock buybacks, executive pay.
I mean, this is, again, like you said, this is what so many workers in so many different industries are experiencing right now. But the reason I go into all of that is because I feel like, for rank and file workers, those changes are often most apparent in the relationships that they have to their managers and to their immediate supervisors. You see that change in those people who are now tasked with enforcing a new ethos in these industries, and it really feels like the inheritors of the Block legacy have been making that case in grotesque fashion, not just before the strike, and seemingly causing a lot of the ranker that led to the strike, including the final straw of cutting people’s healthcare, but during the strike.
It’s just been really gross to see the way that the paper owners have responded to the strike, the ads that they’ve taken out trying to paint the strikers in this negative light, so on and so forth. So I wanted to ask if you could talk about how that factors into all of this, and what led to things boiling over to the point that y’all had no other option but to hit the picket line in October?
Steve Mellon: Well, I think Bill Block, I think he died… It’s been several years since Bill Block died, and then his nephews took over. That was a sea change in the paper, and those changes took a while to manifest themselves. And we’ve seen that it’s really ramped up in the last, well, since 2015, 2016 a lot of the changes. The newsroom has lurched through some changes. I think the newspaper alienated a lot of its readership. The Post-Gazette was always kind of a left of center newspaper, kind of moderate. This is a newspaper that had a labor reporter and a labor writer for decades. I think our labor writer left about, I don’t know, 10, 12 years ago. Up until then, we still had a labor page and a labor writer.
So back then, our publisher famously back in I think 2015, I guess, became infatuated with Donald Trump, and that instituted a lot of changes in the newsroom over a short period of time. Our beloved editorial cartoonist, Rob Rogers, was fired. We had at least one person… Well, I know there were some people on the editorial board who quit because they felt the direction the paper was going in was not… They couldn’t swallow it, and I think a lot of people in the community felt that the Post-Gazette was betraying them, in a way. It was changing in ways that they did not agree with.
But anyway, I think there was a hard line that was drawn around that point, around the contract and how we were treated in the building. There were certain management changes that were very difficult for those of us who were on the street. They were very difficult for us to deal with. One of the things that happened during this time period is George Floyd. We had the pandemic, and then there was the killing of George Floyd, and there were several protests. One of our young African American reporters was barred from covering those protests because of a tweet that she had put out, and that created a lot of resentment in the community, and it made life very difficult for journalists on the street. So we were raw from a lot of these things, and then we had the contract dispute.
And so there was a lot of tension between management and the journalists to begin with, and it came to head in 2020. We voted to strike in 2020, but the CWA did not think we were ready to strike. I think we had a 75% vote to strike at that point, which we felt was pretty extraordinary, but we didn’t strike. We kept working for another two years, and when the healthcare, when the production workers and the typos lost their healthcare, they walked out, we joined them, I don’t know, 12, 14 days later, and it had reached a tipping point. Honestly, I felt it had reached a tipping point in 2020, and I was ready to make that stand and to make that statement then, but it just didn’t happen. It didn’t happen until October of this year.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and just to… Because I know that this is not a thorny issue, but just one that I mentioned, the railroads. And how after a year of reporting on them, I got very good at being able to run through all the kind of hairy nuances and try to fill those knowledge gaps in the general audience. Like the fact that there’s not one union representing railroad workers. There are 12.
Steve Mellon: Right, right.
Maximillian Alvarez: And there are a number of different rail carriers, and labor relations on the railroads aren’t governed by the National Labor Relations Act, they’re governed by the Railway Labor Act. Let me walk you guys through all the shit in there. So I was wondering if… Because I know I got to let you go in a minute, but I was wondering if we could focus on those nuts and bolts really quick, because the strike does involve multiple unions, and so I was wondering if you could lay that out, that situation out for listeners, and maybe say a little more about the central contract disputes here. And then we’ll round out by talking about what it’s been like kind of being on the picket line, and what folks can do to support y’all. But I wanted to just make sure that we cleared those nuances up really quick.
Steve Mellon: Yeah. There are a number of unions on strike. We have pressmen on strike. We have mailers on strike. We have delivery people on strike, advertising folks on strike, and then, of course, the biggest group are the newsroom folks, I think 40, 41, or 42 of us. So there are differences in these unions. And for the first several months of the strike, there was not a whole lot of communication. It was cold. It was winter. We have a couple different picket lines. We have a picket line out in Clinton at the production facility. That’s where the distribution typo, that’s where all the other folks were picketing. We were downtown in front of the newsroom on the North Shore.
And it’s not just a difference in names and job classifications here. There are cultural differences in the unions too, and I think one of the things we decided to do… I worked for the Pittsburgh Union Progress. It’s a strike paper. And we decided a couple of months ago that we needed to get to know some of our fellow strikers who are in other unions. One of the things that I come back to is that a union is… We’re newsroom workers, and we feel our work has value. It’s become a part of our identity. Go talk to the people on the strike line who are delivery folks, who are pressmen, who are mailers. They feel the same. They feel the same connection to their job. These are people who’ve raised families, they are raising families on these jobs. For many of these folks, their fathers or grandfathers in some cases were Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Press workers.
They have strong connections here to their jobs, and honestly, that’s what a union is. It’s sticking together with people who sometimes come from different backgrounds. There’s blue collar, there’s white collar, there’s people with college educations, and people with high school educations, some people who maybe not even graduated from high school, but they went and they spent years learning how to operate a complex, complicated press in a way that very few people are able to do. There’s value to that work.
And so when I look at this strike, I’m looking at all these different unions. We’re all suffering from the same malady here. We have an owner that disrespects what we do, disrespects us as people, and that, to me, is all that matters. We’re in this together because we have the same boss, the same owner. So some of the nuances here, this strike was triggered when these production workers lost their healthcare back in early October. They walked out over that. That’s enough for me. I don’t want these people to go without healthcare. We still had healthcare at that time. That’s called being in the union. We’re in the CWA just like those folks are. So when they walk out, it’s like, okay, we got to support them. We would expect the same support from them if we’d lost our healthcare and they still had theirs, I would expect the same treatment.
I’ve tried to spend a lot of time talking to folks in these other unions, and it’s been one of the more pleasant aspects of what’s a very stressful time, is to talk to people that I’ve seen over the years in the company lunchroom, back when we were at the old building on the Boulevard of the Allies. I had no idea what these people did. Or they’d show up in the lunchroom in their ink stained blue uniforms. I didn’t know who they were. Now I know who they are now, because we’re standing on the picket line when it’s 30 degrees outside for two and a half hours around a burn barrel, so we talk about our kids. We talk about who we are, where we came from, what we want to do when we retire, what we want to do in our futures, what we want our kids to do.
That, to me, is what it all boils down to. They walked out because of healthcare. We followed a couple of weeks… We followed what? 12 days later, 18 days later. And as far as I’m concerned, we’re in this until we’re whole and until they’re whole.
Maximillian Alvarez: Hell, yeah. Well, and on that note, taking us around the final turn here, I wanted to ask if you could communicate to folks out there listening. Because something that really stuck with me, we didn’t do it for this show, this podcast, Working People, but it was for a live stream that I hosted at The Real News Network in December. The most recent live stream actually had your colleague, Bob Batz, on to talk about the Post-Gazette strike. That was last month, and we had a number of great folks from other strikes, including the strike at Medieval Times in California, and higher ed strikes as well, lunch ladies in Minnesota on strike.
But in the December live stream, I remember we had another great group of folks, including someone, a newspaper worker at Fort Worth, when they were on strike down in Texas, a graduate worker from the University of California when they were on strike, a member of Railroad Workers United to talk about the railroad struggle. But also Marcus Derby, who was on strike at CNH Industrial Manufacturing in Iowa at the time. And they had been on strike I think at that time for seven months, and it was in the middle of winter. This was right around Christmas time when it got really, really fucking cold in the Midwest, as you remember.
And Marcus said something on that live stream that really stuck with me when he was really imploring people who were watching to keep supporting them, to keep sending messages of support or sending things to the picket line. Because he was like, look, when this live stream ends, your guys’ lives will go on. I’m still on strike. I’m still here. This is my daily reality. And probably one of the most, if not the most, difficult thing to deal with during a strike, especially a protracted strike, is that feeling of loneliness, that feeling that you are forgotten, that maybe people aren’t going to be there to support you when you need it most.
And that is the day-to-day grind to hold the line. And I say that for everyone listening, that you hear that this strike has been going on since October, but it’s every day. Every day there’s pressure for people to cross the picket line. There’s pressure for people to quit and find another job. There is pressure to break that picket line. And so we need to be the countervailing force to help folks like Steve hold that line, and his coworkers hold that line, and get the contract that they deserve.
And so, Steve, in the final question here, I wanted to ask if you could say a little bit about that experience of being on strike for so long, what you think folks who maybe haven’t experienced that should know about what you and your colleagues have been going through, what it will take for the Post-Gazette to make you and your coworkers whole? What do they need to be doing to actually address these contract disputes? And what folks out there can do to support y’all, how they can show solidarity, especially as people are facing literal violence from scabs on the picket line like we saw this week?
Steve Mellon: Yeah, yeah. I remember when we first walked out, it was a chilly day in October. I had just covered a press conference with Mehmet Oz, of all people, who was running for Senate here against John Fetterman, and after that, I turned in my photographs, and I walked out on the picket line and said, I’m done. We had a big rally. We were all fired up, and for the first couple of weeks, it was exciting. I was like, hey, we’re taking a stand. It’s cool. We walked out without much preparation, so I’m one of the co-chairs of the health and welfare committee, so honestly, the first four or five weeks we were trying to make sure that everybody had their healthcare taken care of. We were setting up a strike fund so people could get their rent paid. We were taking donations. We were making sure everybody got signed up for unemployment. We had our hands full in that first month, so we were running on adrenaline and work that just needed to be done.
There was a lot of community support at that time because it was new. We had a lot of people showing up and giving us donuts and pizza on the picket lines. We had a lot of politicians show up. But after a while, that ends. People stop showing up, and you find yourself standing on the picket line, and it’s cold, and it’s just you and those who are on strike. And in the back of your mind you’re thinking, I’m not getting a paycheck. When is this going to end? You look at people driving in the street and you’re thinking, oh, they’re working. They’re working. They’re working, and you’re not. There are days when you wake up, and you say… It’s just like I wake up on a Saturday, and I think, goddamn it, I’m still on strike.
When I was working at the Post-Gazette, I could bust my ass from Monday through Friday or whenever my shift was, Tuesday through Saturday. At the end of that final shift for the week, I could say, I’m just taking off. I’m not even thinking about work. You can’t do that when you’re on strike, because that’s like, there’s this baseline level of stress that’s always there. It’s like this ringing in your ears, you’re always on strike. You’re always on strike. You’re always on strike, and that’s disruptive, and that’s a challenge.
You’re right about the loneliness. I spent a lot of time talking on the phone with people just to maintain contact for their sake and for mine, just to make sure that people are in the right space with mental health, to try to blunt that loneliness just a little bit. Because people lost not only their jobs, their income, their healthcare, their sense of purpose. They also lost their physical connection to communities that they depended on for all those things. That’s a struggle. That’s a struggle, and we try to be aware of it, and deal with it, be proactive to talk to people. That’s one of the things that we try to make sure that we do at the Health and Welfare Committee, is to make sure that those needs that are not quite always as tangible and as obvious, make sure that those needs are being met too. I’d just say I think as the weather warms up, we’ll be back out in the picket line, depending on how long this lasts. We can be a little bit more social, and some of that loneliness hopefully will be blunted. We’ll just have to wait and see.
As far as what the Post-Gazette needs to do to make us whole, I mean, honestly, I’ve been in all but one of the negotiating sessions. And man, if they would just negotiate, that would really help, just to show us that they’re willing to move on some things, and that they’re actually listening to us, and listening to our offers, and make a valid counter offer instead of just saying, we like our original proposal. That would help.
I think if we went back to the 2017 contract and began negotiating, I don’t want to speak for the bargaining committee, but I mean, that might do it. For $62,000, we wouldn’t have had a strike. That’s what the $19 per week for employees would’ve cost this company. We wouldn’t even be out on strike if they would’ve paid that back in October. That’s a shame to have this much disruption in the city and in the lives of everyone involved for 62 grand, the price of a nice car. That, to me, is heartbreaking.
I think supporting, we have a strike fund set up. We decided about a couple of weeks ago, and we’re getting strike pay, but it’s just not enough for most people. It’s just not enough, so we decided to reach into the strike fund and give people an extra $100 a week to get them closer to being able to pay all those bills as this grinds on. But what that means is we’re depleting our strike fund. You can do the math. We have 100 people out. We’re paying people 100 bucks a week extra. Partly that’s for mental health too, because it’s just to know that you have that extra money, so you’re not having to request money at the end of the month to pay the rent or to pay a car payment or a student loan payment. Hopefully that’s going to eliminate some of that stress that some people are feeling.
But donating to the strike fund, we had a bake sale today, and it was one of the things that made me feel so good is that I have neighbors here that I’ve known for years and years, and we’re not really close, but we’ve known each other. We go to the same church. We see each other on the streets. We had a bake sale today. I came home last night, and these neighbors had dropped off a bunch of baked goods just to support the strike. So I got in my car and I drove those down. I don’t know how much those brought in, but that to me, it’s not bringing in a whole lot of money, but it made me feel good. It made me feel like there’s support out there, like there are people that understand, that are paying attention to this. We’re not lost. We’re not forgotten about, the struggles. People still recognize us. Just a card or a letter in support is huge to us.
I would subscribe to the Pittsburgh Union progress at unionprogress.com. It doesn’t cost you anything. It’s a way to keep up on the strike. We’re still a very small publication. There are only a handful of us writing for it, because they’ve had to take up DoorDash jobs and everything else to pay their bills, so we have a lot of people who would like to write for us, but just don’t have the time or the head space to do it right now.
So it’s a newspaper put out on a thread, but we’re publishing daily, and we’re following our strike very closely. We’re also keeping an eye on the Starbucks workers’ strike and some of the other labor things going on here, as well as trying to cover the East Palestine train derailment story and some of these other big issues that we have.
I mean, those are the things I would say that you could do to support. I think there’s a link there to donate. If you go to unionprogress.com/donate, I think there’s a way to donate to the strike fund. That’s always a big help, but I think paying attention to it and maybe reaching out on occasion with a note, or an email, or something is a big help.