The recent collapse of a Pittsburgh bridge is the latest in a series of horrifying examples of how our country’s failure to invest in infrastructure endangers its people. While we are relieved that no one was fatally injured in the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, we must remember that infrastructure doesn’t stop at roads and bridges, and cities across the country need comprehensive support. All of us — people of color especially — need our government to invest public dollars into our housing, our climate, our care, and our water. Community organizing is key to these efforts and to our collective safety and liberation.
Decades of austerity policies have left city governments cashed-strapped, and often forced to slash budgets and turn to corporations to manage essential services, with disastrous results. The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, may be the best-known example of how economic disinvestment deliberately and disproportionately harms Black and Brown people, but that example is not an isolated one.
In 2016, 81,000 Pittsburgh households received letters warning of dangerously high lead levels in their tap water. Communities faced water shutoffs and boil-water advisories. Widespread and significant billing errors caused people to miss their payments, triggering water shutoffs that predominantly affected Black neighborhoods. Four years earlier, the city had made a deal to hand over control of its water supply to Veolia, a private multinational corporation that prioritized profits over public health as part of its management strategy. Veolia bypassed state approval for the chemical used to prevent lead contamination and chose a cheaper alternative — resulting in a lead crisis. To make matters worse, Veolia cut Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) laboratory staff — responsible for testing water quality — in half. And, residents reported being overbilled as much as 600 percent and threatened with water service shutoffs for unpaid bills, despite the inaccuracies.
Time and again, Veolia put its profits over the needs of city residents, securing contracts that stacked the deck in its favor. While the residents of Pittsburgh dealt with the lead crisis that followed Veolia’s management, the corporation was counting the money made from its three-year, $11 million deal with PWSA. The contracts incentivized Veolia to make decisions based on the dollars “saved” rather than doing what was best for Pittsburgh residents and workers.
Low-income communities and communities of color suffer the most at the hands of ruthless corporate decision-making. Veolia’s billing errors had an outsized impact on those communities, the same communities that are also hit the hardest by public health crises such as elevated lead levels or an ongoing pandemic.
How the People of Pittsburgh Demanded Public Control
Public pressure and a class action lawsuit eventually forced the city to end its contract with Veolia, but problems within the authority persisted. But in 2017, when then-Mayor Bill Peduto was considering a new contract, now with People’s Gas — the largest natural gas supplier in the region— Pittsburgh United mobilized.
In a new case study, “Water as Public Good: Pittsburgh’s Our Water Campaign,” Demos and Pittsburgh United outline how a diverse coalition of organizers and community residents stood up against privatization, demanding that the city live up to its obligation to keep the water system public.
To fight for the people’s control of what should be a public good, they formed the Our Water Campaign: a coalition of community, labor, faith, and environmental groups. Campaign members knocked on doors and attended community events, distributing free water filters and pitchers to neighbors most affected by the crisis. While doing so, they talked to people about the lead crisis, the billing errors, the water shutoffs, and all of the negative fallout from Veolia’s management of Pittsburgh’s water authority. They talked about how privatization caused those problems, and why public control of their water was the solution. They organized community members to attend PWSA board meetings, give public comments about residents’ needs, and demand that PWSA stay public.
Throughout this process, Pittsburgh United and its allies communicated a clear core message: the way out of this crisis was greater accountability through public control, not an abdication of government responsibility through privatization.
Critically, they linked their demand for clean water to the fight for affordable housing, climate change and racial and economic justice. This allowed groups focusing on different issues to collaborate in pursuit of shared goals. The coalition also found allies in PWSA who were committed to maintaining a public authority, adding additional pressure from inside the agency. After public pressure made it clear to Pittsburgh City Council that support for the Peoples’ Gas proposal would be untenable, the deal did not proceed. Instead, City Council and Mayor Peduto signed the Our Water, Our Rivers pledge to keep PWSA public now and into the future. The coalition pushed PWSA to create community advisory committees so that customers could advise the authority on various issues. PWSA also promised to provide flexible payment plans on water bills, full replacement of lead water lines (rather than partial replacements, which worsens lead levels), and a moratorium on water shutoffs during the winter.
Pittsburgh United’s story — the story of communities organizing in Pittsburgh to push back against a private water giant — shows that people can successfully resist the corporatization of essential infrastructure. Organizers had a clear message and goal, connected their fight to larger struggles for environmental, economic and racial justice, and applied pressure inside and outside of government to achieve that goal. Their work is proof of the power of community organizing. When communities stand up in the face of privatization to keep public goods public — and fight for their human right to clean water — they can, and do, win. But their government needs to have their back.
After years of failure to invest in infrastructure at the federal level, we finally have an administration in the White House that recognizes it as a priority. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $55 billion in funding to strengthen our country’s water systems, which necessitates eliminating the lead pipes that have endangered generations of people in Pittsburgh and all across the country. The funding is essential after years of disinvestment, but it doesn’t go far enough. We need $60 billion for lead removal, but the bill falls far short at just $15 billion. If the Biden administration is serious about preventing future water crises, it must commit to more public spending on climate-resilient infrastructure and ensure that communities and organizations like Pittsburgh United play a lead role in deciding how the money is spent.
Veolia and Pittsburgh officials’ choice to put profit over people was a choice to put the city’s residents and families at risk. But through a combination of grassroots organizing, continued investment, transparency, and a commitment to give community members a seat at the table, the city has an opportunity to build toward a better future for all.
This post also appears on Next City's blog as part of its "Hear Us" series.