Pittsburgh Millennials Take to the Streets for Beliefs

A New Era of Activism Is Based On Needs of Young People

By Alicia Green

Pittsburgh’s Active Millennials

When Samey Jay was a sophomore at Point Park University, she decided to find out about the Occupy Pittsburgh movement, and within a week she had her own tent in the protest encampment.

After that movement fizzled, she joined a group bent on helping Pittsburgh’s labor movement, then matriculated to an umbrella group focused on increasing affordable housing, economic equality and cleaning up the rivers.

Jay, now 24, is an extreme example of the many Millennials in Pittsburgh that are using activism and organizing to highlight concerns about social, economic and political issues that they believe are affecting them.

In a report released by the White House, it categorized Millennials as the group of Americans born between 1980 and the mid-2000s.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials “now number 83.1 million and represent more than one quarter of the nation’s population” and “are more diverse than the generations that preceded them, with 44.2 percent being part of a minority race or ethnic group” as of July 2015.

With that has come activism, through radical groups like Fight Back Pittsburgh, the Million Student March and United Students Against Sweatshops.

Fight Back Pittsburgh

Fight Back Pittsburgh member Hannah Gerbe poses in front of the United Steelworkers building.
Fight Back Pittsburgh member Hannah Gerbe poses in front of the United Steelworkers building. Photo by Alicia Green

“It’s not necessarily a new thing for young people to be involved in activism,” said 24-year-old Hannah Gerbe, financial secretary for Fight Back Pittsburgh, a community developed through United Steelworkers Local 3657.

“Start looking back at the 1950s and 1960s, those are a lot of young people. At the same time, I feel like a lot more people are getting involved for a lot of different reasons,” she said.

After losing their camp in 2012, Jay said some members of the Occupy Pittsburgh movement continued to do work related to the cause, such as hosting events over the summer and putting together plans for an organization that would eventually become Fight Back Pittsburgh.

And in January 2013, the organization was founded.

“It’s the spirit of creating a space for people to get involved in activism in Pittsburgh, specifically the labor movement,” Jay said in a telephone interview. “The organization does a lot of solidarity work with other worker organizations like Fight for $15 and the [United Steel Workers] who have been locked out, going on strike or organizing.”

Jay would serve as a board member and recording secretary before eventually becoming the chair of Fight Back Pittsburgh in 2014. She resigned last year to work as a communications and office coordinator for Pittsburgh United, a coalition of community, labor, faith, and environmental organization.

Three years ago, Gerbe joined Fight Back Pittsburgh. She remembers the inaugural meeting in January 2013.

“I’ve been involved in activism and politics since late middle school, early high school,” Gerbe said. “Once I started to hear about Fight Back Pittsburgh from friends sitting in each other’s basements talking about it, I was like ‘Oh! This sounds cool.’”

Gerbe cited low wages, equality and college debt as factors of a rise in Millennial activism. She contributes the access of information being “a lot greater because of social media and the Internet” to the recent surge in Millennial involvement as well.

“There is a lot of activism happening in Pittsburgh right now,” Gerbe said.

“There is a lot of activism happening in Pittsburgh right now,” Gerbe said. There is Fight for $15, Pittsburgh Paid Sick Days, Pittsburghers for Public Transit. Anything that you hold value in, that you care about, probably exists in Pittsburgh. If not, make it.”

Million Student March

And that is just what Alex Austin did.

Last November, the 30-year-old University of Pittsburgh student and veteran organized a local day of action after learning about the national movement known as the Million Student March, whose purpose according to its website is “to demand tuition-free public college, the cancellation of all student debt and a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers.”

“I’ve heard far too many stories about students who pay the minimum debt, and they can’t afford it,” Austin said in a telephone interview. “When they pay the minimum, their current debt is going up. And that’s not right. “

Austin said the “University of Pittsburgh is the highest in-state tuition for public colleges in the entire country.”

According to U.S. News data in 2014, it was “the most expensive school for residents after topping the list last year as well.” During the 2015-2016 school year, in-state tuition and fees at the university was $18,192.

Austin continued, “It’s a significant increase in tuition cost when the wages aren’t going up and the cost of living keeps going up. I don’t think it’s affordable for students to be even going to college anymore.”

The group staged a second march on April 14, one day after the national movement to stand in solidarity with Fight Back Pittsburgh as they marched for the global day of action for Fight for $15 in hopes of making Pittsburgh a livable city.

“We knew there was going to be another one in the spring because if you let up on the fight, then nothing’s ever going to come of it,” Austin said. “This year [the University of Pittsburgh] is already proposing college tuition increases, and they’re also proposing increases in pay raises for the upper administration.”

Austin said “it’s awful,” especially “when we can’t even get our state budget under wraps, and find out how much money our university is going to get for financial aid.”

The state budget issue Austin is talking about has finally been resolved after an almost nine month impasse.

“This time around its more significant because tuition hikes are going to keep happening, student grants are going to keep on getting cut and student loans are going to keep on going up,” Austin said. “Unless we have students out on the street multiple times a year, it’s not going to change.”

Signs call for the cancellation of student debt and a $15 minimum wage.
Signs call for the cancellation of student debt and a $15 minimum wage. Photo by Vania E. Arthur.

United Students Against Sweatshops

Kai Pang, 21, marched alongside Austin after reaching out to him to in hopes of combining the Million Student March and Fight for $15 to create one overarching movement for Pittsburgh.

“We’re fighting for the same things,” said Pang, a University of Pittsburgh student, in a telephone interview. “The messaging is really Pittsburgh is not a livable city for everybody, even though it’s often called that. How do we turn Pittsburgh into a livable city that we want? It makes more sense to stand in solidarity.”

“The messaging is really Pittsburgh is not a livable city for everybody, even though it’s often called that.” — Kai Pang, 21.

Pang is a member of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) Local #31, a national organization that focuses on campus work justice and international solidarity campaigns, at his University.

“Currently, a lot of our efforts are based around the Fight for $15 movement,” Pang said. “It’s a national movement started a couple years ago by fast food workers going on strike in New York City.”

In February, Pang said USAS Local #31 hosted the national USAS National Conference where about 300 students from across the country came together and “shut down the streets of Oakland.”

Recently, USAS Local #31 launched the $15 for Pitt campaign, which calls for the University to pay all campus workers $15 an hour including student workers.

The group is also in the process of working on the Fight Back for Pitt Faculty campaign, which supports the organizing efforts of the faculty and graduate employees whose end goal is to form a union.

“We’re seeing professors that are not making livable wages, that don’t have any job security [and] often having to teach classes at three or four different campuses,” Pang said. “And just at the end of the day, not being treated with respect [and] not having a voice in the workplace.”

The end goal of the union drive, according to Pang, is “to get 50 percent plus one of the represented body to be in support of a union.”

The United Steelworkers

Photo by Vania E. Arthur.

The United Steelworkers (USW), the nation’s largest industrial union, is organizing the professors and graduate employees at the University of Pittsburgh.

“We’re a labor union that represents workers in pretty much every sector of the economy,” said USW Vice President and Strategic Campaigner Patrick Young, 32. “Every part of your life from birth to death, Steelworkers are a part of that.”

Patrick Young of the United Steelworkers holds a sign of solidarity in his office. Photograph: Alicia Green
Patrick Young of the United Steelworkers holds a sign of solidarity in his office.
Photo by Alicia Green

Young said USW’s representation includes, but is not limited to, the steel industry, paper industry, the chemical industry and oil refining industry. Some of the many people the union represents in Pittsburgh are the adjunct faculty at Point Park University, the assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders, the gravediggers and nurses.

On March 29, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) announced that it would raise minimum starting wages for employees to $15 an hour by 2021. This comes after UPMC workers organized in hopes of receiving better wages.

“The workers at UPMC have been working with [SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania] to form a union for hospital workers in the area,” Young said in a follow-up email. “Because UPMC is the largest employer in the region, every labor union in Pittsburgh has been working to support the workers in this important struggle.”

USW was one of the labor unions involved with the cause.

“The USW has mobilized members and community activists to participate in dozens of demonstrations in support of the workers fight for $15 and a union,” Young said. “We have also hosted fundraising events at our headquarters building to raise money for workers who were illegally fired. “

Young said he believes “without the hard work of the courageous hospital workers I don’t think there’s any chance that UPMC would have made this move.”

For R.J. Hufnagel, working at USW as a writer and editor has given him the chance to work with a variety of Millennials, including Young.

Hufnagel, 43, is considered a member of Generation X, which according to the White House is an individual born between 1965-1979.

“They’re more active, more engaged and really smarter,” Hufnagel said about Millennials.

“They’re more active, more engaged and really smarter,” Hufnagel said about Millennials. “Smarter than I ever remember being. They’re more aggressive about it than my generation ever was.”

Hufnagel said “it’s sort of a throwback to my parents generation,” who are known in history as the Baby Boomers. He also said he doesn’t believe there is much to teach the Millennial generation.

“They seem to have a lot of guts, and there’s a sense of urgency,” Hufnagel said. “I feel like we can teach them plenty, but they can teach us plenty too. I don’t necessarily think that we have to hold their hands because they’re taking the lead.”

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Alicia Green graduated Point Park University with a degree in journalism in Spring 2016. She aspires to work for a local or national newspaper, based in New York City.