Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto set to meet with UPMC chief
Mayor Bill Peduto on Tuesday called UPMC's fractured relationship with its employees and the city of Pittsburgh his “most pressing issue” and believes two days of union unrest could be the catalyst for change.
Hundreds of UPMC workers seeking higher wages, along with union organizers and protesters from outside Western Pennsylvania, rallied outside the health care giant's Downtown offices in the U.S. Steel Tower. Peduto used the demonstrations on Monday and Tuesday as a launching pad to call on the region's largest employer to raise wages, increase access to its hospitals and pay its “fair share” to Pittsburgh along with other tax-exempt nonprofits.
Peduto said he plans to meet on Wednesday with UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff.
“Right now this is the most pressing issue that I have, because it affects not only our economy, but our peace,” Peduto told reporters gathered in his conference room after cutting short a trip to Washington. “It affects the ability to see a new economy, to help those that weren't a part of it. It hits upon all the things we've talked about to build a new Pittsburgh.”
Spokesman Paul Wood said UPMC is looking forward to its discussions with Peduto.
“UPMC, likewise, has a stake in and is committed to the success of both the City and the region,” Wood wrote in an email.
Peduto, a staunch supporter of organized labor, persuaded protesters to end their second-day demonstration shortly after it began by telling them he would meet with UPMC.
“Supporters demanding better jobs have agreed to a request from Peduto's office to bring their concerns to the table with UPMC,” said Maria Montano, spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union, which is attempting to organize UPMC workers and endorsed Peduto's election bid last fall.
Peduto said he believes he can persuade UPMC to change because he's known Romoff personally for years.
“The most important strategy I'm going to use is personal involvement,” he said, and “the ability to sit and talk as individuals to find where we can get to.
“We may not be able to get exactly where we want on every issue, but I can assure you of one thing: We're going to move,”Peduto said.
Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College, said UPMC has to sit down with the mayor.
“UPMC has to demonstrate they're willing to have a dialogue with the mayor who won big,” he said. “I don't think they have a choice. They can't just ignore the new mayor.”
Gerald Shuster, professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh, said Peduto's involvement could be a way for both sides to save face if they reach a compromise on compensation for workers. But Shuster predicted that UPMC would offer little in a compromise.
“If this generated anything of an offer, Peduto looks good to the union people,” Shuster said. “At least he looks like the one who started a dialogue.”
UPMC doesn't appear willing to budge, at least on employee wages.
“We pay our service workers in Pittsburgh at higher wages than the local market average, with our average service worker earning $12.81 per hour, or $26,644 annually,” Wood said. “In addition to wages, our service workers are offered superior health benefits for themselves and their family members, retirement benefits, paid time off from work, and tuition benefits for employees, spouses, partners and dependent children.”
Peduto is attempting a delicate balancing act.
He must be sensitive to UPMC, which employs more than 62,000 people and has helped transform Pittsburgh's heavy industry-based economy to one based on education and health care.
He also owes unions, which supported him financially through his mayoral campaign. The SEIU was one of his biggest supporters, with $26,000 in donations.
The mayor and City Council have repeatedly called on tax-exempt nonprofits such as UPMC, which own along with government entities 40 percent of city real estate, to help the city financially through payments in lieu of taxes or payroll taxes. They've also called on UPMC to permit its workers to organize.
Nonprofits have contributed $2.6 million toward the city's budget in each of the last two years. Its 2014 budget is $480 million.
Complicating Peduto's position is Pittsburgh's lawsuit against UPMC challenging its tax-exempt status. Peduto has said he supports the suit.
Councilman Corey O'Connor speculated that Peduto is using the suit as leverage, a possibility that Peduto didn't dismiss. Peduto called the suit “a reality of any negotiation.”
“It is something that is on the table that really is just following the strict letter of the law, and it can be used as an opportunity for discussion,” he said.