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Pittsburgh mayor allegedly in union’s pocket

News broke recently that the mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Ed Gainey, has unusually close ties with the Services Employees International Union (SEIU).  The questions about Gainey’s union ties came after an email thread exposed some members of his staff’s close communications with SEIU regarding talking points about the area’s nonprofit hospital systems and unionization of these systems’ workers.

In preparation for a June 2022 meeting with leadership at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), the mayor’s staff and SEIU Healthcare executive vice president and political director, Silas Russell, sent back-and-forth emails preparing the mayor’s talking points. The talking points explicitly demanded unionization, which it called “a fair election arrangement with SEIU.” Russell offered specific advice that was added verbatim to notes sent to the mayor by his staff.

Russell said of the emails, “Every health care worker should have the ability to form a union … we think every elected official should be working to hold UPMC accountable and ensure hospital workers have a voice at work.”

Now employed by SEIU, Russell was the co-chair of Gainey’s transition committee.

Some of Gainey’s current staff also have deep ties to the union.

His press secretary, Maria Montaño, formerly worked as SEIU Healthcare’s campaigns communications specialist, and Lisa Frank, who used to work as the union’s former executive vice president and director of strategic campaigns, is Pittsburgh’s chief operation and administrative officer.

When asked about the June 2022 meeting and the union-influenced talking points, Montaño denied the allegations in a statement, which read, “The mayor has long been a supporter of the right of working people to come together for a union and a voice at work … In a meeting with UPMC, he asked them to sit down and listen to their workers, however, he has not made any demands.”

But actions by Gainey and the union suggest otherwise.

SEIU Healthcare spent over $350,000 on Gainey’s mayoral campaign, making SEIU his largest donor. Soon after his election, the mayor announced an investigation of the hospital systems’ nonprofit tax status.  Local media suggest that Gainey’s investigation may be a tactic to coerce the hospitals into unionizing with SEIU, which has been trying to unionize the hospitals for over a decade.

In addition to Gainey, the union backed a state representative for county executive in a party primary to the tune of $15,000 (through an affiliated organization) in December 2022. Russell is listed as a $100 donor to the candidate’s campaign.

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Spencer Irvine

Spencer Irvine is Senior Writer & Researcher at Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Spencer previously worked in state government, in communications for a non-profit advocacy organization, and held various administrative and communications roles at a media analysis organization. He has a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Brigham Young University. He lives in Arizona with his wife, is an avid history buff and enjoys touring historic sites.