Elif Batuman writes in The Idiot that “everyone thought they were Dumbo." Even school bullies will cheer along with the pink–eared baby elephant as they watch the Disney classic. Nobody has the self–awareness to realize they’ve been the bad guys all along. But when I sat down this June in a chilly conference room at the ornate William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, reporter’s notebook in hand, I realized that some people are content to play the villain.
Looking at the lawyer representing the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette in a bargaining session, I couldn’t imagine this man thinking he was the hero. He had a face straight out of an Ebenezer Scrooge casting call and absolutely no intention of making a fair deal.
“By the end of [contract negotiations] you're probably gonna hate me,” Lowe says in an early meeting, according to newsroom guild leader Ed Blazina. Blazina adds, “I can guarantee you it did not take nearly that long for us to hate this guy.”
A striker seated near the middle of the table held a plastic bag dripping with a juicy fruit that he clarified was a Crenshaw melon. He offered it as a snack to the PG lawyer, who declined it with a sneer. “I had the fruit bowl at the hotel restaurant,” he says.
The striker shot back, “We can’t afford the fruit at the hotel restaurant.”
By this point, workers represented by five unions—Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, Teamsters, Pressmen, Mailers, and Typographical—had been weathering a strike for over seven months. When the PG refused to pay increased health care premiums of $19 per worker for the four craft unions, they walked out on Oct. 12, 2022. A few weeks later on Oct. 28, the News Guild joined them on the basis of solidarity and to take a stand against the illegal bargaining impasse that the PG had declared back in 2020. Newsroom employees had been working without a union contract for five years—and as then–PG Features Editor Bob Batz Jr. put it, his son in high school was younger than his last contractual raise.
Every PG staffer has a different perspective on the day of the strike itself. Helen Fallon says it happened “so darn fast,” Karen Carlin says it was “a scary decision,” even though she knew it was the right thing to do. Steve Mellon, after years of frustration, was ready to take a stand and say to the community that “we're not afraid to push back against the publisher.”
In early April, I was in waiting–to–hear–from–internships purgatory when an email offering me a position at the PG popped up on my phone. I shrieked with surprise—I’d applied several months before and figured I’d simply been ghosted. My excitement, however, lasted for mere hours. As soon as I got around to googling the paper, I was met with headlines detailing the strike, the labor issues leading up to it, and eventually, the Pittsburgh Union Progress, or PUP: a digital outlet representing the striking workers of the PG. I spent the rest of the evening scrolling through their articles.
By the time morning came and I was sitting in my Huntsman Hall marketing class, I’d worked up the courage to email Batz, PUP’s interim editor.
I wrote the message in a fairly manic state:
I hope this email finds you well. I'm Delaney Parks, a student journalist and junior at the University of Pennsylvania. I'm writing to you after receiving a summer internship offer from the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette, which I have not accepted. (mic drop)
I attached my resume, one of my other Street features, and a classic Penn email signature, then sent it into the void.
I hoped to hear back but didn’t expect it. I was certain Batz had more important things to worry about than my “Summer Opportunity Inquiry,” fighting vital labor battles while managing a staff literally working without a salary.
Instead, he got back to me just a few hours later. I got my first glimpse at his dad energy—I’ll quickly learn that his emails were always riddled with ellipses, Pittsburgh slang, and some of the best opening lines I’ve ever received, including “glad to have you both aboard this pirate ship,” and “I hope today finds you doing great and that you haven't yet blocked my email address.”
Over the next month, Bob and I figured out an internship plan, funding, and housing—I’d sublet for two months from the roommate of one of my high school best friends. When June arrived, I lugged an overstuffed black duffle bag onto a Greyhound bus at 3 a.m., and so began my Union Girl Summer.
Later that June, after the sitdown with Lowe, I was revisited by my earlier thoughts of Dumbo and good versus evil. This time, I was at a meeting on the second floor of Pittsburgh’s United Steelworkers building, surrounded by posters that mocked “scabs” (workers that cross the picket line) and urged observers to “end corporate welfare!”
Mellon, a veteran photojournalist at PUP with an enviably cool aura (he writes most of his stories on his patio at 2 a.m., sipping bourbon), began to tell a story.
Last summer, he’d been assigned to cover a downtown clash between a small group of anti–transgender protesters and a larger group of trans rights supporters for the PG. When he had tried to get an interview with one of the advocates, they’d told him that they might trust him as a person, but they didn’t want to speak with him in his capacity as a PG reporter.
Beyond the scope of labor issues, the paper’s current publisher, John Block, came under fire for a tirade at the newsroom in 2019 and his connections to Donald Trump—in 2020, the paper endorsed Trump, whose administration attacked LGBTQ rights.
That moment at the protest sparked an “existential crisis” for Mellon. “What am I doing at this stage in my career, where I'm getting tossed out of these movements that I think are very important for us to cover?” he wonders. “Because the people who are pushing back against bigotry, pushing back against racism and hate, associate me with [them] simply because of the place I work.”
Ten months of striking has taken a toll on everyone, and Mellon is no exception. He’s got car repairs he’s been putting off, and bills to pay. Still, there’s something to be said for the type of coverage he can produce now. So far, he’s covered a drag bingo event, taken breathtakingly colorful photos at Pittsburgh’s pride month, and written a feature profiling several trans kids.
One of the longest articles I put together during my time at PUP was actually a companion piece Mellon felt was necessary to accompany that story about trans kids in Western Pennsylvania—an explainer about gender–affirming care resources available in the area.
While I wanted to dive into the world of feature writing, my stories ran the gamut of beats, encouraged by Batz, who peppered Harrison Hamm (my intern counterpart from Denison University) and me with endless pitches and always met our own ideas with enthusiastic yeses.
A week in, I suggested tailgating the first Pittsburgh show of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour—so I spent the night surrounded by sequins and rhinestones, learning about the songs that most resonated with the Swifties dancing around the lawn outside the stadium.
Midway through the summer, I wrote two stories entirely in first–person, making the hard news reporter within me shudder with fear. One was a collaboration with Harrison that involved driving to a new whiskey distillery outside the city and tricking myself into enjoying a Manhattan. The other offered me a slice of pickle pizza I still fantasize about—and introduced me to a romance built around a pickle festival that renewed my faith in love.
On a far more somber note, I spent a day at the federal courthouse downtown most weeks, hearing testimony for the trial that ultimately ruled that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter will get the death penalty. PUP covered the trial in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, and Batz heralded it as the future of collaborative, rather than competitive journalism. By the end of the trial, we’d produced dozens of stories.
It was also my first time doing court reporting, and I found the odd juxtaposition of semantics and procedure with the horrific content of the testimony disturbing. Hateful social media posts and descriptions of guns were read out, psychologists for the defense and prosecution clashed over the definition of delusion, and I tried my best to piece together a narrative that reflected what happened, without making the reader relive each excruciating moment.
Where other internships have networking sessions and Lunch and Learns, PUP offered pickets, solidarity cookouts, and fundraising events showcasing labor history, like a viewing of Matewan in a community center basement.
I picked my outfit with care: my tote bag with all kinds of PUP and union buttons, and a vintage CWA T–shirt that my father found at a thrift store, referencing AT&T labor issues. It was a special find for more than the obvious reasons. Right before I started the internship, my dad told me about how my grandfather was a CWA steward at AT&T, and my great–grandfather was an organizer for the Westinghouse Air Brake Company right in Pittsburgh.
The CWA shirt wasn’t just peak Union Girl Summer fashion, it was a reminder that I was basically fulfilling my ancestral Pittsburgh destiny. Fallon, a PUP co–editor and writer, compliments the shirt when she arrives in the community center basement.
I’m honored—Fallon, who always has a warm smile and a story up her sleeve, knows a thing or two about unions. This is actually her second strike. Now a part–time journalist and professor emeritus at Point Park University, she remembers the chaos of a strike at the Mon Valley Independent in 1979, where she worked when she was just a bit older than I am now.
Fallon says now she feels like a “full–time” striker, though she was only a “part–time” journalist, adding that “in my semi–retired life, I would just be alone lying around, drinking more iced tea than my body can handle, getting ready to go to work on Wednesdays and Fridays, sometimes Saturdays.”
This echoes a sentiment that several reporters have agreed on—it’s plain exhausting to always be waiting for the next update, or waking up and immediately remembering you’re on strike, on top of everything else. “No matter how prepared you are,” Fallon says, “It's a very difficult thing. I heard someone say ‘Some of you are happy to be on strike’—no one's happy to be on strike.”
To continue with the non–traditional intern programming, Batz drove me about 50 minutes out of the city into Butler, Pa., where the distribution of the PG takes place on Saturday nights. That night, strikers and supporters were holding a picket outside of the facility and trying to block the trucks from accessing it.
As I talked with him on the drive over, I was reminded of what makes him a great journalist—he really listened to the stories I’d tell, whether about my time so far at PUP or my high school swim team experience, and he knew to weave a tale of his own. He was filled with passion for both IPAs and doing the right thing, and, as always, emphasized that he was on strike not because he antagonized the PG, but because he loved what the paper could and should be.
As he says later, “It's not because we hate the Post–Gazette or we want it to go out of business. It's because we love the Post–Gazette.”
For Batz, running PUP was a “whirlwind” at first, but it’s allowed him to keep his identity as a journalist. Figuring out how to cover bargaining sessions and pickets like that night’s was a precarious balance, but one they had to figure out. “We were going to do journalism even if it was about ourselves,” he says. “I don't feel like I compromised that at all by being a journalist at a strike paper.”
When we arrived and I hopped out of the car, he joked that the PG never would have me doing something like this as an intern. I grabbed a slice of broccoli pizza and made the rounds among the strikers I had gotten to know. It was a beautiful night for a picket, and morale was high. Community allies like 412 Justice had joined us, the Pittsburgh Labor Choir was teaching all of us the words to the classic “Solidarity Forever,” and we were painting a banner streaked with rainbows.
Later, the sun faded, and with it, the calm atmosphere. While police cars loomed, our group arranged ourselves in a circle blocking the entrance to the facility and walked counterclockwise, repeating “Get up, get down, Butler is a union town.” The rhythmic chanting did wonders for my nerves—as did the dance moves of Jacob Klinger, one of the News Guild organizers. Neighbors, many of whom I’d been told supported the cause, lined their porches to watch the scene.
At one point, it seemed like the officers were going to break us up before backup even arrives—they yelled some things I couldn't make out at a few strikers, and the circle became more of a misshapen blob. Amid the chaos, someone was drawing chalk hearts near the feet of the police.
They relent and we ended up continuing for another 15 minutes or so before the backup arrived and police loudspeakers commanded us to “remove [ourselves] from the entrance immediately.” As the trucks rolled on past the gates, strikers shouted “scab!” and “shame on you!” into the night.
Perhaps the wildest brush with the law I witnessed all summer was the situation that Blazina found himself in. Months earlier, he had been part of a group passing out “Solidarity” signs in the neighborhood of Stan Wischnowski, the executive editor of the PG. The group placed one about six inches onto the editor’s property.
Blazina, for the record, is even more non–threatening than your average grandpa figure. He’s 67 with rectangular glasses, wispy grey hair, and an earnest smile as his default expression. His beat is transportation, and as Batz told me, he’s the heartwarming guy that would end up in this predicament in the “movie version” of the strike.
On his way out of the neighborhood, Blazina got a message from a fellow striker who’d spotted Wischnowski headed home. He decided to watch from a distance as Wischnowski and his wife ripped out the sign and looked around at the others scattered along the street. In order to navigate out of the neighborhood, he first had to reenter the directions into his phone.
“I drove about two blocks to a pastor's house and pulled over to the side. [Wischnowski] pulls up beside me and yells through his window. I have my window up, I have no idea what he’s saying. He goes back to his house, I pulled back up to his house too. I parked on the other side of the street, I get out of my car, and I can hear his wife on the porch saying, ‘Now he's getting out of the car and heading this way.’ Like I was holding an axe or something,” Blazina tells me. “I said, ‘Stan, if you want to talk, I'm willing to talk—I couldn't hear what you were saying.' And he just looked at me and said, ‘Stay off my property!’”
Blazina was found not guilty of a simple trespass and criminal trespass charge, but he—and the other strikers—lost even more respect for Wischnowski and PG management in the process.
“There were no nasty words. There was nothing, there wasn’t any threat at all. But that's what he did to somebody who has worked with the paper for more than 30 years,” he adds.
While the whole incident sparked a fun “Ed the criminal” running bit, the strikers’ boss calling the police on one of his friendliest and most senior reporters made it even more difficult to envision returning to the office.
At this point, Christmas Carol–style changes of heart and dramatic gains in bargaining aren’t impossible, but my sources predict that the strike will end through legal means—namely, a National Labor Review Board decision expected to come out this fall. If it rules in their favor, and a new contract eventually goes into effect, co–workers who have been “scabbing” all this time will benefit too, a harrowing prospect.
Carlin, a co–editor at PUP, says that it may be premature, but she’s already worrying about the environment that may greet her return. She had considered many of the people who have been working this whole time to be her friends, but she anticipates coming back after everything that happens to be “very difficult.”
“I'll be civil, and I will do my job and I will do it as well as I did before. But you know, maybe there'll be a little less joviality,” she says with a wry chuckle.
Fortunately, the team at PUP has joviality to spare. Carlin says one surprise upside of the strike has been growing far closer with her fellow union colleagues. Before everything, she might have seen them in passing, or barely at all in the age of hybrid and remote work. Everyone I spoke with agreed—solidarity has carried them through difficult times.
On my last day in Pittsburgh, I get another dose of that feeling. Batz and I share a byline to cover a rally for Starbucks workers in the morning and head to join the rest of the core PUP crew at a Japanese restaurant downtown. Sipping my spicy mezcal drink, I’m bittersweet. I joke with Harrison about his continued gravitation to fruity cocktails, have a solid conversation with Steve about the future of advocacy journalism, and hear all about when Fallon visited the Cavern Club where the Beatles played.
After extended goodbyes, PUP writer and News Guild organizer Andrew Goldstein, or as everyone calls him, “Goldie,” offers me a ride home. Batz fondly considers him to be the young rabble–rouser of PUP, and his “striker beard,” which he’s been growing out since October, fits the bill. We’ve talked before about the strike—he’s expressed his frustrations about how PG officials “just sit there quietly breaking the law, while the people who, are the ones who put their blood, sweat, and tears into the paper are the ones trying to hold them accountable.”
I’d shared his frustration a few days earlier when we collaborated on a story about the death penalty verdict. Though Goldie and PUP photographer Alexandra Wimley had been part of the team behind the Pulitzer Prize–winning shooting coverage, scabs were at the same press conference we were, writing about the trial’s resolution for the PG. He and Wimley couldn’t shake the feeling that “it should’ve been us.”
In our conversation on the ride home, we dive even deeper into his reflections on the decade that’s spanned his journalism career so far, my fears about entering this turbulent industry, and how he believes the strike will go down in the history books someday. As a parting gift, Goldie hands me a sign, with “On ULP (Unfair Labor Practice) Strike from the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette” emblazoned on it. He thanks me sincerely for my work at the paper and for my courage in seeking them out in the first place.
I remember something he said a while back, about how solidarity gives “life blood” to those out on the picket line. I can only hope I’ve donated enough of mine to make a difference.