Hospitals are the New Steel Mills
July 19, 2012 9:10 am
A drive for a union at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in Pittsburgh could have a lasting effect for workers in the Rust Belt city.
UPMC employs around 50,000 workers, making it the largest employer in Western Pennsylvania, and the second largest in the state. Since the closure or automation of many of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, private sector unions have seen their ranks diminish by two-thirds. Meanwhile, over the same time period, the city experienced an improbable renaissance, with gains in education and healthcare sectors leading President Obama to declare Pittsburgh a “knowledge city” during a 2008 campaign visit.
The lack of unionization in Pittsburgh’s private sector stands as a riposte to the city’s rich labor history. One of the bloodiest battles in U.S. labor history occurred in neighboring Homestead. With that past in mind, UPMC staffers and local government officials are questioning the fierce anti-union pushback by the healthcare behemoth.
“I appeared before the UPMC board a few weeks ago and the first thing I asked them was ‘why am I here?’” says Pittsburgh City Councilor Bill Peduto. “This fight has already been fought. Blood has been spilled in this city’s labor struggles and that needs to be recognized and honored.”
The SEIU commenced efforts to unionize UPMC’s administrative and non-medical staff – about 20,000-30,000 employees – in January. Workers have allegedly been subjected to weekly and even daily captive-audience meetings. UPMC also set up an anti-union website, and sent threatening letters to workers. The Pittsburgh City Paper details official responses to worker intimidation and harassment, saying “[t]he SEIU’s Healthcare Pennsylvania local has already filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing UPMC of having ‘[s]urveilled, interrogated and intimidated employees’ by threatening to fire them for actions ‘such as “talking about” the union.’”
The anti-union efforts come as UPMC’s profits continue to grow. Becker’s Hospital Review reports, “UPMC’s excess of revenues over expenses totaled $210.7 million, up from last year’s third quarter total of $203.1 million.” Writing for Daily Kos Labor, an pro-union chef contrasts views on profit-sharing in separate meetings with anti-union consultants and SEIU reps:
In the mandatory employee meetings held by management, I have learned how willing they are to get input from their workers, and of all the great ways UPMC has been using their “excess revenues”, how they will look into issues like raises, PTO time, break and locker rooms and how all of this will change if we “join” the union…
The union meetings at the Hilton, on the other hand, have been enlightening, fun and encouraging. I have learned that with the $750 million in “excess revenues” that UPMC could do many things to benefit their frontline workers. I haven’t been able to really crunch the numbers, but free healthcare and substantial pay increases seem intuitively reasonable. I would hate to have to do the math to find out how much of UPMC’s “excess revenues” can be attributed to the employee contributions from payroll deductions, deductibles and co-pays. Should I get hurt at work, it’s $75 to be seen at the ER at Presby, yet there is not even a first aid kit anywhere in the kitchen. I’ve taken to carrying my own small stash of band-aids and some first aid supplies in my locker. I’ve also learned that the top-tier management got a minimum 10% raise last year, with the maximum raise of 49% going to the CEO Romoff, who now pulls down a nice $6,000,000/year salary. This definitely conjures images of the 99 vs. 1% dichotomy so nicely framed by the OWS movement.
UPMC’s record profits are not being reflected in the wages of their workers. Chaney Lewis, an 8-year employee of UPMC Presbyterian, makes under $10 an hour transporting patients. Teri Collins, a 31-year veteran of UPMC Montefiore, tells the City Paper, “It’s very concerning to me that in 2012 we’re back to fighting for the same things that workers fought for and won years ago,” says Collins on a recent day off from her job as a unit secretary. “I’m a realist. I don’t expect to work at this job and make $60,000 or $70,000 a year. But, my God, there’s no reason that anyone should make less than $15 an hour working at a job in this country. … That’s why we need a union.”
If SEIU efforts to unionize UPMC workers are successful, they could initiate a sea change for the region’s workers. After the flight of manufacturing jobs in the late 1970s, the region courted private industry — UPMC still enjoys tax exempt status. Steve Hertzenberg of the union-funded Keystone Research Center says, “UPMC accounts for a lot of jobs in this region, and these jobs are as important to today’s workers as manufacturing jobs were in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.”
As UPMC goes, so goes the city.
Image from here