By Lisa Cunningham
PITTSBUGRH — A group of about 20 Port Authority of Allegheny County employees and allies gathered in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday afternoon to show support for bus operators and workers who claim they are being penalized for wearing Black Lives Matter masks while on duty.
“We’re here to support the majority of our operators and the majority of our passengers and to make a stand in this time of change that’s long in the works,” said a member of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, who was wearing a Black Lives Matter mask and who asked not to be identified because of retaliation. “We want to show our support, and we don’t want to be disciplined for it.”
Wednesday’s protest follows Local 85, which represents more than 2,300 workers, accusing the Port Authority last month of violating its workers’ First Amendment rights, according to TribLive. Port Authority updated its dress code policy in July, prohibiting masks that contain a political or social protest message.
Sascha Craig, an instructor for Port Authority, spoke before the crowd, which stood in a line on the sidewalk across the street from a popular Sixth Street bus stop as a steady stream of buses continuously passed by the protest which lasted just under an hour.
“The coronavirus hit us about six, seven months ago. Port Authority of Allegheny County and its CEO Katharine Kelleman said, ‘Wear whatever you want to wear,’ and it was fine. Up until West Mifflin Division Director Heather Wilhelm took it upon herself to say that Black Lives Matter masks can no longer be worn,” said Craig. “So Port Authority took it upon themselves to circle the wagons and protect their management. It was never ever ever a problem until Port Authority made it a problem.”
In a statement sent out on Wednesday morning before the protest, Port Authority CEO Katherine Kelleman said: “I want to be absolutely clear: Port Authority unequivocally believes that Black lives matter.”
Kelleman’s statement noted that federal law prohibits public agencies to permit employees from displaying certain messages while preventing other employees from displaying others. “If Port Authority allows uniforms to be used as a message board for some political or social protest topics, we must then allow all messages on that topic, including those that could disrupt Port Authority’s ability to deliver public transit service in a safe and efficient manner and cause harm to our employees, customers and communities,” Kelleman says. “In legal terms, our policy is viewpoint neutral and simply aims to keep our transit system from being disrupted unnecessarily.”
Kelleman also added that “Port Authority’s uniform policy has prohibited the wearing political of social justice messages since the 1970s,” and that its recent dress code amendment was added to include face coverings “since they are now part of the Port Authority uniform.”
Craig said that Kelleman’s statement was “disingenuous at best, and it has no merit whatsoever.”
“At some point in time, you have to stand up for what you believe in,” Craig continued. “Some people believe that, ‘Hey, this is just a fad.’ This is not a fad. This is America, finally coming together as one and supporting each other. And that’s what we really need to do. And that’s what Port Authority needs to understand.”
Lisa Cunningham is the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.