Pennsylvania: Union steps in to help struggling refugees

By Kristen Moulton | The Salt Lake Tribune

The ironworkers union in Pittsburgh says it sees a breach between refugees and the resettlement agencies responsible for helping them launch their new lives in Pennsylvania.

So it’s stepping in to aid struggling families.

In November, union organizer Chadwick Rink went to Washington, D.C., and shared stories of filthy refugee housing and what he considers unfair labor practices with the head of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and with Catholic Charities, the parent of one of Pittsburgh’s two resettlement agencies.

The same week, he went to court to help a family of four Karen refugees from Myanmar avoid eviction. The father can’t find a job; the mother has heart disease and can’t work. For now, the union agreed to pay their rent. But Rink thinks the resettlement agency should pay the rent until the father finds a job.

“I would want to make sure I am taking care of the people that I’m responsible for without regard to the cost. These are human beings,” he said.

Perhaps the union’s biggest push is against one of the city’s employers, W&S Steel, which Rink claims is paying refugees unfair wages and subjecting them to dangerous conditions.

Celeste Wilhelm, the company’s human resource manager, said Rink’s claims are false and based on past failed efforts to unionize its workers. Pay is based on merit and skill level; and the company offers English-as-a-second-language classes and math classes to all employees, she said.