This story was produced in partnership with Pittsburgh Magazine.
A chain and padlock bound the mayor’s office doors on a sweltering July 2009 afternoon. Inside was Luke Ravenstahl’s administration. Outside – chanting, but barred by the links from the city’s corridor of power – were some 100 labor activists upset about North Shore development decisions. Among their leaders was Sam Williamson.
Williamson, district leader of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, recounted that day, when he reminded some 50 SEIU members of how far they’ve come at a February meeting at the local’s Fourth Avenue office.
“Ten years ago, we were a union that was literally getting locked out of the mayor’s office when we went to try to have a conversation about power, job standards and development, right?” he said.
In 2007, Williamson only had enough clout to sway one city council member to vote against the Bakery Square development.
Now, Williamson — who made his name in Pittsburgh by railing against development deals from the East End to the North Shore — chairs the board of the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA]. In March, as the coronavirus crisis shut down much of the city’s business activity, he was reelected as chairman by the board at a meeting held by video conference. He closed that virtual gathering with these words: “Stay safe, be careful. We’re going to get through this, and when we do, the URA is going to have an enormous amount of work to do to help the people and businesses of Pittsburgh to recover.”
The political player leads a purple-clad army and wields a campaign warchest that can decide council races. The activist against whom the doors were chained helps direct an organization that demands seats at the budgeting table — sometimes to the chagrin of a mayor he helped to elect.
Those roles make him a Pittsburgh insider and outsider at the same time, and an unconventional choice for URA board chair — a volunteer role usually held by top mayoral aides.
Some wonder whether Williamson can translate vision to action as predecessors have done. And Williamson knows his roles could clash.
But even as he vows to avoid conflicts of interest, Williamson won’t shy away from conflict. This year, he and his local plan to win 41 contract fights, target new employers for unionization, influence a presidential election — and maybe settle a decade-old political score.
Hours before Mayor Bill Peduto unveiled his new URA director and freshly hired chief economic development officer to the press in January, a few dozen insiders, including Williamson, got a closed-door introduction. As developers and neighborhood activists started trickling out, Sam Williamson exited those mayor’s office doors, hurrying to another meeting while giving voice to the administration’s philosophy.
“Our mayor’s goal, the URA board’s goal,” Williamson said, as he awaited the city hall elevator, “is to make sure that we have development policies that lift people out of poverty, that help to grow the economy of the city in a way that is putting us on a footing to succeed in the 21st century.”
As URA board chair, 43-year-old Williamson, of Friendship, is charged with guiding the city’s main development organization in its efforts to channel local, state and federal money toward creating jobs, encouraging business growth and improving neighborhood quality of life. Until Williamson took that chair in February 2019, its occupant was traditionally connected at the hip to the mayor’s office. During Mayor David Lawrence’s tenure, he chaired the URA himself.
There were two reasons to link the chair to the mayor’s office, said Rob Stephany, senior program director for community and economic development at the Heinz Endowments, who was executive director of the URA from 2008 through 2012. First, it ensured the mayor’s vision was faithfully communicated to the URA. Second, the chair traditionally brought the URA’s priorities to the attention of city departments, particularly planning and public works, and the water authority.
In terms of shepherding a growing economy that lifts all boats, Stephany said, “I can’t think of a better guy to grapple with those things than Sam.” But can he rally the city’s disparate arms to a development challenge?
Stephany said his “only concern” with Williamson is that “while he’s got a good, close, probably speed-dial relationship with the mayor,” his position outside of city government limits his ability to push through "what could be a solid change agenda.”
Peduto appointed Williamson to the URA board in December 2017 and supported him for chair 14 months later.
“Sam and I had gone through battles together,” Peduto explained in a March interview. He said the union leader is “somebody that I can trust” who “has the capacity to not only understand what [the mayor’s] vision is, but to agree with it completely.”
Elected in 2010 while his elder brother was mayor, state Rep. Adam Ravenstahl has won eight contested elections and two uncontested. The upcoming primary is one of the former, with SEIU 32BJ lining up behind his Democratic primary opponent, Emily Kinkead.
“[A]ny organization that’s willing to put substantial dollars and boots on the ground is obviously concerning,” Ravenstahl said. Another reason for concern: “I view this endorsement as a personal attack on myself and my family.”
Last year, SEIU 32BJ — which counts many foreign-born workers among its office cleaners, security officers, school and university workers — opposed a bill that requires construction firms verify the Social Security numbers of employees. Ravenstahl joined large state House and Senate majorities in voting for it. Williamson said that vote drove the union’s decision to back Kinkead.
Ravenstahl, of Ross Township, doesn’t buy it.
“In my humble opinion, they’re using the e-verify vote as cover to come after me personally,” Ravenstahl said, noting that several other Pittsburgh-area Democrats voted for the bill without incurring the union’s ire. With Luke out of office and their father, longtime North Side District Judge Robert Ravenstahl, freshly retired, the union, said Adam, wants to put “an end to the Ravenstahl name” in politics.
The political rise of Williamson and SEIU 32BJ was spurred in large measure by Luke Ravenstahl, who ascended to mayor upon Bob O’Connor’s 2006 death.
Two years before the chain-and-padlock standoff, when Williamson led the hospitality workers union, he urged the city not to back the Bakery Square development in Larimer. The reason: Its hotel was effectively exempt from an ordinance requiring that hospitality businesses in city-backed development agree not to fight unionization. Developer Walnut Capital and the URA exempted the hotel by technically locating it in the “air rights” above the development, rather than on a parcel of land.
When Williamson and allies lobbied council against city support for Bakery Square, they got a sympathetic ear from Peduto, who then represented the eighth district. But in the end just one council member — Len Bodack — voted against the development. Council voted 7-1 to back the development, without forcing Walnut Capital to come to terms with the unions.
Later, Ravenstahl’s administration sold North Shore land between the stadiums to Continental Real Estate Companies over the objections of unions asking that higher wages and advocacy groups seeking an agreement that would guarantee specific benefits to surrounding neighborhoods.
Williamson called the period “painful, frankly, for our members.”
One component in the quest for power is Pittsburgh UNITED, an advocacy coalition founded by labor, community, faith and environmental organizations in 2007. In 2010, it pushed city council to pass legislation requiring that hoteliers, building managers and grocers in city-backed developments pay prevailing wages to their employees.
Another component is raw electoral might.
In 2011, Williamson joined SEIU 32BJ as assistant district director. Three years later, that union was a key to the selection of Luke Ravenstahl’s successor.
Its political action committee was “able to match what the other labor unions were putting in against me,” Peduto said of his successful 2013 run. Working with Peduto, SEIU 32BJ then backed passage of a bill requiring that nearly all employers in the city provide nearly all workers with paid sick days. The local also pushed a $10 million-a-year Housing Opportunity Fund, filled through a hiked deed transfer tax.
And when city council members don’t listen to SEIU 32BJ and its nearly 7,000 Western Pennsylvania members?
Councilwoman Darlene Harris voted against the paid sick day ordinance and the tax hike. Last year, the union’s members repeatedly knocked North Side doors for her opponent Bobby Wilson. SEIU 32BJ’s political action committee [PAC] gave Wilson’s campaign $10,000 and spent another $55,246 on materials, consultants and other independent expenditures meant to win him votes. The PAC’s support alone was more than either Harris or independent Chris Rosselot raised for their campaigns.
Now Wilson fills the seat Harris held for 13 years.
SEIU “bought the campaign. That’s what they did,” Harris said.
“This is a decision that their union made, and their workers made, and I’m honored that they would see my race as one in which they could have a voice,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s bid got the most support, in dollar terms, of the 26 races, from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, in which SEIU 32BJ’s PAC donated to a specified 2019 candidate. In 21 of those cases, the local’s pick won.
“If you want an army to be out there knocking doors and making phone calls and communicating between its membership and its membership’s families and really organizing for Democratic politics 100% of the time, there’s nobody like the army in purple,” Peduto said.
With that army against him, Adam Ravenstahl argues that those dollars and boots would be better saved for autumn’s electoral armageddon. “A personal attack,” he said, against a Democrat, “quite honestly, hurts the effort of House Democrats to take the majority.”
Celeste Scott walked to the podium at the February meeting of the URA board. The affordable housing organizer for Pittsburgh UNITED was concerned about the way the URA was spending a $1 million chunk of the Housing Opportunity Fund meant to be used to cover salaries and overhead. “The Housing Opportunity Fund is supposed to be transparent and accountable, and we’d like to answer to the community as to where that money is going,” she said.
Scott was talking to a board chaired by Williamson, critiquing a program the city created at Williamson’s urging — and doing it as a representative of an organization co-founded by Williamson and on whose board he sits. Even as he strolls freely in and out of the corridors of power, an organization he helps to guide bangs on the gates.
In December, Pittsburgh UNITED gathered 50 people in front of Council Chamber to criticize Peduto’s 2020 budget proposal. The coalition’s organizing director Brandi Fisher said the city needs to “start by putting our money where our priorities and our values are.”
The administration defended its budget but also said it was “committed to work with [advocacy groups] in the coming year to address their concerns and improve our practices.” Later, Peduto bristled. The mayor said Pittsburgh UNITED and its allies are demanding a "type of control" that they would never want the city to cede to a corporate group, such as the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.
“I would say, I love them, and they drive me crazy,” the mayor said of Pittsburgh UNITED and other advocacy groups. “It becomes difficult to read the tweets when it seems like the arrows are pointed at you.”
Early in Peduto’s administration, the mayor convened a meeting between Williamson and Todd Reidbord, president of Walnut Capital, the developer of Bakery Square. Before the meeting, Walnut Capital’s signature development, anchored by Google, was serviced by non-union cleaning and security contractors. “We had had many years of tension and outright animosity and campaigning against them,” Williamson recounted.
Asked about the meeting in a February interview, Reidbord said he believed “the mayor asked most developers if they would agree to use union labor for some functions.” Reidbord acquiesced.
“We represent the cleaners and the security officers at Bakery Square now,” Williamson said. “And as a result of our last contract, they’re on their way to $17 an hour now.”
In November, Reidbord and Williamson were in the same room again as Walnut Capital and two allied firms asked the URA board for its OK to negotiate on the development of seven parcels in East Liberty. Williamson urged that the team work with neighborhood groups, then voted to authorize talks between the URA and the firms.
Williamson said he’s ready for the scenario in which the URA board must vote on a project involving a company with which his union, or its coalition partners, is actively grappling.
“I would not engage in the URA discussions around those issues,” he said.
In his first year as chair, Williamson abstained from one vote, in which the board decided to extend the city’s union-friendly prevailing wage policy to URA-backed developments. He did, however, participate in the board discussion of the measure.
He said he won’t let his development role curb his role as an advocate for working people. “We’re not going to stop doing that,” he said. “I’m not going to stop doing that.”
Williamson’s guests at that February union membership meeting included Kinkead, embattled Democrat state Rep. Summer Lee and a Carnegie Mellon University student who led campus activism in favor of SEIU employees. The third guest symbolized the local’s plan to push aggressively for new, better contracts for 2,000 workers this year and to prepare to brainstorm “the biggest industries and the biggest employers that we can go after so we can start raising standards” in the service sector, as Williamson put it.
“Might be airport workers,” he said. “Might be parking workers. Might be a regional food service campaign” focused largely on colleges.
And if that’s not enough, they have to defeat a president.
“We can’t withstand four more years of Donald Trump,” he said. “We have to win Pennsylvania, and in order to win Pennsylvania, our plan is to mobilize more of our members across the state to register and vote than we ever have before. … A few thousand votes might sway the election from one candidate to the other. It might actually make the difference.”
Deciding a presidential race is a tall order. But, then, the mayor’s office door was once chained shut — and now it’s wide open.
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @richelord.