Pittsburgh – In 1969, Pittsburgh was in the midst of a building boom. Three Rivers Stadium was going up on the North Side. The U.S. Steel Tower was rising out of Downtown. Construction jobs were aplenty – except, that is, for African Americans.
Black workers represented only 2 percent of the membership of the city’s building trade unions, which controlled hiring on construction projects worth millions of dollars. The battle to integrate those unions paralyzed the city, grabbing national headlines and making a hero out of crane operator Nate Smith.
Smith’s life and his successful campaign to gain representation for African Americans in the city’s construction trades are recounted in “What Does Trouble Mean? Nate Smith’s Revolution.” The latest film by the Center for Documentary Production and Study at Robert Morris University was written and produced by recent RMU graduates Erica Peiffer and Alexander Wilson and edited by Brad Grimm.
The 56-minute film premiers at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 3, at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh’s downtown Cultural District. The film follows the life’s journey of an African American laborer and his evolution into a charismatic leader who forced integration of Pittsburgh’s construction trade unions in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Through stunning archival footage, eye witness accounts, and artfully performed reenactments, the film tells not only the story of Nate Smith but also recounts a time when the eyes of the nation were on Pittsburgh -- a city on the brink of chaos as the battle for jobs moved from talks and threats to mass demonstrations, arrests and endless negotiations.
A World War II veteran who lied about his age to join the Navy, Smith had a brief career as a boxer and become one of the city’s few African Americans in a trade union when he joined the operating engineers union. When union leaders claimed that African Americans were unqualified to fill skilled construction jobs, Smith spearheaded Operation Dig, a federally funded program to train blacks to use operate heavy equipment.
The program graduated its first class of trainees, but union and contractor opposition undermined Operation Dig as it entered its second year. In response, Smith joined with other community leaders to form the Black Construction Coalition, which staged a series of demonstrations in the summer of 1969 to protest the continued refusal of contractors and unions to hire African Americans.
The protests shut down construction sites and drew counter-demonstrations from union members and their families. Ultimately, builders and unions signed an agreement with the Black Construction Coalition called The Pittsburgh Plan, which became a national model for integrating labor unions.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Nate Smith was an important labor figure, meeting with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburg, and Presidents Ford and Carter. He participated in international conferences, consulting with world leaders such as Golda Meir and Yasser Arafat. Through it all he remained focused on getting jobs for minorities. African American representation in the Pittsburgh construction trades grew to 15 percent of the unions’ membership. The film asks, “Where is the Nate Smith of today?”