Pittsburgh: Back In the USSR

Maggie Field writes on store cards, work in a legal office and more

Pittsburgh may be stuck in the early part of the 20th Century, but it has encouraged the ironic 21st Century American trend toward adopting practices of the old Soviet Union. Long lines at stores, shoddy merchandise, secret police action, citizens reporting each other for inappropriate thoughts, extensive punishment for criminals, restraints on moving one's residence are all conditions that Americans used to hold up as examples of the evil Soviet empire. Did Ronald Reagan win the Cold War—or did Americans lose?

It is not surprising that Pittsburgh would embrace both the owner-management control structure of the Industrial Revolution and the political architecture of Soviet centralized control. Both systems emphasize an old boy network, devalue creativity and change, and exile outspoken individuals. The Soviet Union was criticized for failing to report bad news and bad conditions to its citizens. In Pittsburgh, without bad news, there would be no news. Solutions and effective dialogue are what do not receive open media attention.

As with the Soviet Union, public money is being spent on sports stadiums throughout America. In Pittsburgh, the public pays through a 1% sales tax, called the Regional Asset Tax, or RAT. This money pays not only for baseball and football stadiums, but also for downtown cultural venues (i.e., theaters for musicals) and other non-profit groups. The benefit comes in that sports are a safe topic, and in Pittsburgh any conversation is more likely to be about the Steelers football team than any other topic. If the talk is about sports, then the spies in the corridors have nothing to report to the bosses.

Americans used to mock Soviets for standing in line without revolt. At the CVS drugstore chain, customers willingly wait in ever increasing lines as the store now offers a saver's card. In order to buy goods at sale prices, customers must present their cards. If no card is at hand, the clerk and other customers must wait for the customer to dig the card out or provide identifying information with which to pull up the proper data file for crediting. At least CVS allows the customer to acquire a card without extensive personal information, and it is possible to have a clerk provide a new card for anonymous use each time a purchase is made. In contrast, at the Giant Eagle grocery chain some clerks will not even offer to submit a saver's card application without first seeing a driver's license. Even when a clerk can be found who does not insist upon seeing identification, it is impossible to get a card without providing an address where a permanent card can be mailed while a temporary card is provided immediately, valid for one day.

Family Dollar stores, full of products at very low prices, stand in contrast to the GUM department store of the Soviet era, derided for its empty shelves. The smiling greeters at Wal-Mart would not be found among the widely-lamented surly clerks of Soviet bakeries. The overflowing trash barrels and dumpsters, filled beyond capacity with plastic wrapping, styrofoam pellets, and thick cardboard boxes wouldn't be found in pre-perestroika Moscow, either. The trait shared between the two cultures is their thirst for products made outside their countries. For Soviets, there was status to be found in buying a western-made item, even if a similar Russian-made product was of better quality. For Americans, there is status to be found in affording twenty gadgets made in China, even though one product made in their home state could be bought for the same total price and last longer.

In the Soviet Union, joining the Communist Party brought financial and social benefits. In Pittsburgh and the rest of America, registering with the plethora of databases maintained by companies brings financial and social benefits. It is possible to exist in capitalistic America without joining in, but not without difficulties and dedication to an ideology of opposition.

Without properly sanctioned identification, it is difficult to function in American society. National identity cards may not be required in the U.S., but excessive documentation is required to rent, receive official state identification, vote, open bank accounts, use a computer in a library, travel on Amtrak, get to work in an office building or other location, and for other daily events. After 2001, Pennsylvania and other states made it cumbersome for ordinary people to obtain official identification. Now, a person moving to Pennsylvania must present an out-of-state driver's license, a birth certificate, a Social Security card, and two proofs of address. Not everyone has a standard first-last name identity, however, nor a living situation that shows their address.

Regulation has not yet reached the level, as it did in the Soviet Union, that citizens who were not registered residents of Moscow could not live there legally. Then again, people wanted to move to Moscow because it had a stronger economy. People want to move from Pittsburgh because economic opportunities are better elsewhere for individuals and non-traditional married couples: better pay, better entertainment venues, better access for participation in government and community groups, and more freedom to explore opportunities beyond their traditional roles in labor and society. These were also the reasons people wanted to leave the U.S.S.R.

Pittsburgh is a living history museum. The sky-climbing steel mills and coke furnaces are gone, replaced by flat-topped box stores. Blue-collar factory jobs have given way to casual wear work environments in offices. Pink-collar jobs have been reduced by the introduction of computers. (Earthlink announced early in 2004 that it would lay off 400 call center staff in Pennsylvania and outsource the jobs overseas, following the steel mills that lined the edges of Pittsburgh shut down and relocated in the 1980s. The landfills remain, however, with Pennsylvania being one of the top importers of trash for disposal from other states.) Nevertheless, the white collar administrators and their professional supporters continue to demand total devotion from their workers and cringe at the thought of workers claiming the same democratic rights as those held by the owners. Politics and industry are still dominated by white men. Segregation of the races still continues in housing, work, recreation, and government.

All five members of the state-appointed Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (appointed earlier this year after Pittsburgh's mayor declared the city to be in financial distress) are white and male. When confronted by the statistics, one person involved in creating the board said that if there were qualified female entrepreneurs and businesswomen available for appointment to the group, he had not seen them in the Pittsburgh area (a city of 340,000 people, in a county of 1.2 million residents).

In a Pittsburgh Law Office

George W. Bush's call for employers to pay low wages to offset overtime pay has been in practice for decades at Pittsburgh law firms. Employees with twenty years seniority at one large firm receive pay comparable to what inexperienced new employees in other cities receive for entry-level positions. In the third quarter of 2003, the firm dropped double-time pay and increased the number of hours at straight pay to the federal limit. The demand for secretaries to work overtime remained unchanged. For employees who are able to work overtime, the extra pay adds up to a livable level.

Employees unable to work extensive overtime—due either to outside commitments or to lack of work within their authorized range of tasks—find themselves living paycheck to paycheck, with high levels of credit card and other debt. The law firm's personnel manager won’t allow support staff to switch tasks and expand their roles (to increase efficiency and reduce the overall time required on the job)—a complaint often lobbed against unions, but just as likely to be found in management practices. In addition, even though the work does not depend upon the workers being at their desks as the imaginary whistle blows, support staff is reprimanded if traffic or some other reality of modern life means they don't get to work on time.

In most Pittsburgh law firms, female and non-Caucasian attorneys appear to be tolerated, if not encouraged. In one firm where women attorneys are generally respected, a support staffer noted that it was very rare for a man to be hired as a secretary. Clients' demands are behind some firms' moves toward staff diversification, but there is no outside pressure, such as a union, to improve opportunities for the support staff. In small firms, the owners still tend to be men and the support staff women, who continue to be called "girls" even by the younger bosses.

Workers are valued by how cheaply they can be acquired; quality is not rewarded or even encouraged. One person experienced as a legal secretary, upon moving from the hell of Minneapolis to the purgatory of Pittsburgh, noted that her income dropped by $300 a month when there was full-time work, while her monthly living expenses increased by over $100. Working through temporary agencies, the person discovered that law office managers regularly complained that the agencies charged too much, but were uniformly amazed when they were sent a temporary who was knowledgeable and competent. Nevertheless, the law firms routinely want to pay their workers even less than what temporary workers receive.

The Pittsburgh preference for the cheapest applicant is clear in how new workers are treated at the large law firm whose overtime policies are described above. The first week of employment is spent in training. This starts with the viewing of occupational films, including one on how to answer a telephone, then lessons on how to use a photocopy machine and how to turn on a computer. (Okay, maybe not how to turn the machine on, but the training is very close to that beginning level.) This training was justified so the manager could prove to the attorneys that she was taking steps to provide qualified staff in the face of numerous complaints about the poor quality of secretaries. Hiring competent workers and paying them to perform competently was not an option. This is the status of employment in Pittsburgh law offices.

In Pittsburgh, a city geographically divided by three rivers, there is a saying that residents will not cross a river to participate with other people. Those same people may think nothing of waiting two hours at the airport to fly to Cancun for a week of sun and fun, but they will not travel thirty minutes to join forces with other denizens of the city. We’re taught to wonder why more people did not oppose the conditions of Soviet life. But why don’t more people recognize and oppose the shoddy conditions of life in Pittsburgh and throughout the United Soviets of America?

by Maggie Field