UPMC, healthcare union take center stage at Labor Day parade
The battle between Pittsburgh's largest employer and one of the country's largest unions took center stage in the Labor Day celebration Downtown, as organized labor stepped up its effort to establish a beachhead in Western Pennsylvania's service economy.
SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania accuses UPMC of intimidating and retaliating against workers trying to organize. The union filed at least two complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against the health care giant; UPMC settled one in February by rehiring two workers it had fired. UPMC says its compensation “far exceeds” what's offered by other corporations.
“UPMC can do better by its employees,” said Chaney Lewis, 31, of Edgewood, a patient transporter at UPMC Presbyterian. Workers want cheaper health care and a wage scale that starts at $15 an hour, rather than topping out around that wage, said Lewis' co-worker, Christoria Hughes, 56, of Oak Hill.
Add in health care, retirement plans and vacation time, and full-time workers make more than $21 an hour, UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps said. The hospital provides tuition reimbursement for employees and dependents, she said.
“UPMC's compensation package far exceeds what other industries offer, and we continue to provide benefits that most major corporations and governments are reducing or eliminating,” Kreps said.
Four of the top Democratic candidates for governor — U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz; former state Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf; former state Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty; and state Treasurer Rob McCord, who hasn't officially declared his candidacy — attended the parade and UPMC unionization rally on the second floor of the United Steelworkers Building.
Despite dwindling membership, unions maintain potent political organizations.
“I relied on them to deliver the city of Pittsburgh, and they did, in a big way,” said Bill Peduto, the city councilman and Democratic mayoral nominee, speaking to the gubernatorial candidates at the rally. Peduto told the candidates that union support in the next election could hinge, in part, on their support for labor against the hospital system.
Hundreds of yellow-and-black “Make it Our UPMC” T-shirts and signs from SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania dotted the parade, which Allegheny County Labor Council President, Jack Shea, estimated at more than 50,000 marchers. Just a few thousand spectators dotted the route from Consol Energy Arena in Uptown to the United Steelworkers building Downtown.
Service jobs, like those the SEIU wants to unionize at UPMC, have become a focus for labor leaders. Once considered a temporary stopover on a worker's way to his or her career, these jobs are the only ones available to many people, Shea said. About 80 percent of private-sector employment is in the services industry, according to the Department of Commerce.
“The service sector is where the steel industry was in its early days,” Shea said.
SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania planned to host a rally on Saturday in Oakland.
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.