Pgh Congressional Candidate Steve Irwin Led Law Firm’s “Union Avoidance” Division

A federal Judge, who was Reed Smith's top union busters, says her signature was forged a petition for fellow union buster Steve Irwin. (Photo: Steve Irwin for Congress)

(Update: on Friday night after publication of Payday’s expose, the Pittsburgh-based AFL-CIO declined to endorse Irwin)

PITTSBURGH, PA – Payday Report has recently discovered that Steve Irwin, who is locked in a tough three-way primary for Pittsburgh’s open Congressional seat, served as a partner at the anti-union “union-avoidance” law firm Leech Tishman. 

For at least a decade, Irwin oversaw the Labor & Employment division at Leech Tishman, a law firm that states they provide “union avoidance” services, a common euphemism for what union organizers label “union-busting.” 

The revelation of Irwin’s role running a law firm division specializing in “union avoidance” comes as the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council meets tonight to discuss who to endorse in the Congressional race. 

In 2015, Irwin successfully worked with Leech Tishman to defeat a Pittsburgh City Council bill that would have guaranteed paid sick leave to low-wage workers. 

For a July 2015 debate about whether to pass paid sick leave, Irwin solicited small business owners to express their concern about the law’s impact, according to a 2015 article on Leech Tishman’s website. 

After a four-year court battle that went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the law, which passed Pittsburgh City Council in 2015, was finally enacted in 2020. 

It’s possible this news could also prevent Irwin from gaining the endorsement of the local AFL-CIO, which could give Irwin a significant boost both in terms of financial support as well as grassroots support from organized labor. 

Irwin is currently locked in a national-watched three-way primary against Black socialist State Representative Summer Lee and Pitt law Professor Jerry Dickinson, who is also Black. 

While no polling has been done in the race, Irwin is leading in fundraising. In the last quarter, Irwin raised $337,980.84 while Summer Lee raised $272,512.02; Jerry Dickinson raised $120,108.97

In addition, Irwin, the former Jewish head of Pittsburgh’s Anti-Defamation League, has received the endorsement from the corporate-backed Democratic Majority for Israel PAC. The Super PAC spent over $2 million defeating progressive icon Nina Turner in a nearby Cleveland congressional special election primary in 2021.  

Unlike Irwin, Lee’s campaign has relied greatly on their grassroots strength and announced that they had gathered 7,135 signatures to get on the ballot. Irwin’s campaign gathered approximately 2,000 signatures; Dickinson did not disclose the number of petition signatures they gathered. 

On Thursday, Lee’s campaign and Irwin’s campaign traded high-profile endorsements. Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed Summer Lee, while Irwin received the endorsement of retiring Congressman Mike Doyle and Allegheny County Executive Richard Fitzgerald. 

It’s possible that the local AFL-CIO could endorse Irwin as they have bitterly opposed Summer Lee for years, primarily because of her opposition to fracking, which local unions favor. 

In the 2020 primary for State Representative, Lee was the only incumbent State Representative that the AFL-CIO opposed for re-election, with many unions spending heavily against the former labor organizer. 

Already, SEIU, United Electrical (UE), and the UFCW have endorsed Summer Lee, a former organizer with the Fight for $15 in Pittsburgh. The unions are the only ones that have endorsed in the congressional race so far. 

Still, Irwin’s background as a partner at the law firm that worked against unions and advocacy against paid sick leave could make it more challenging for him to win the local AFL-CIO’s endorsement. 

After being appointed by Governor Ed Rendell in the early 2000s, Irwin served in the firm’s government relations division to lead Pennsylvania’s Banking and Securities Commission. 

Irwin did not return a request for comment about his work on the paid sick leave when reached late Thursday night. Payday Report will update this story when we receive a comment from Irwin. 

The Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council declined to comment as the Council is meeting tonight to decide on an endorsement. 

Payday Report will update as we learn more.

(Full Disclosure: State Representative Summer Lee and I attended Woodland Hills High School together in the early 2000s.)

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About the Author

Mike Elk
A protege of Bill Greider, Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter who covered Lula & the drug war in Brasil and spent years covering union organizing in the South for The Guardian. In 2016, he used his NLRB settlement from being fired illegally for union organizing at Politico to start the crowd-funded Payday Report. The son of retired United Electrical Workers (UE) Director of Organization Gene Elk, he was once described as an "abrasive gadfly" by the New York Times for his role in exposing sexual misconduct in the labor movement. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Email: [email protected]

1 Comment on "Pgh Congressional Candidate Steve Irwin Led Law Firm’s “Union Avoidance” Division"

  1. Robert steffes | March 19, 2022 at 6:57 am | Reply

    Mike,
    Thanks for your work! I pasted the report to the PG story today about Irwin’s sordid past. I volunteer for the Beaver County Democrats but am heartily sick of the continuing shenanigans of the Allegheny and PA Dems.
    Rob

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