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Pittsburgh's UPMC hospital workers demand right to form a union

Natasha Lindstrom
| Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, 9:33 p.m.

Nila Payton began working in the pathology department of UPMC Presbyterian at a starting wage of $10.06 per hour.

More than 12 years later, Payton, 38, of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood is a mother of three making about $16 an hour — thanks to a one-time merit raise when her title changed from administrative assistant associate to administrative assistant intermediate.

Payton says she loves her job and believes she’s good at it. She doesn’t want to leave, but she wants employees like her to have a stronger say in negotiating wages and benefits and weighing in on changes that impact her daily duties.

She wants to be part of a union.

“A union, to me, equals a voice,” said Payton, whose husband helps provide child care for their youngest kids, a 5-year-old and a 4-month-old. “We’re focused on our goal to actually have a union within UPMC, and it seems like they’re fighting tooth and nail to keep that from happening. But it would work out for all of us if we had a union, I feel.”

Payton joined dozens of fellow UPMC hospital workers and union advocates from across greater Pittsburgh in a one-day, pre-planned strike Thursday in the name of workers’ rights to unionize — and not be retaliated against or lose their jobs because of it.

They aimed to focus attention on what they say is the nonprofit health care giant’s violation of workers’ rights to join collective bargaining. They called on UPMC to implement changes recommended by the National Labor Relations Board to prevent unlawful harassment, intimidation and retaliation against employees exercising their rights to do so.

UPMC officials declined to comment late Thursday on the strike, but said that “only 44 of our 40,250 Pittsburgh-based employees participated in this staged protest.”

Instead of reporting to work, the Pittsburgh-based hospital employees — including cafeteria workers, nurses’ aides, housekeepers, research assistants, medical assistants and administrative assistants — took to the streets to protest UPMC’s alleged mistreatment of its workers.

“We saw a surprising degree of support from people who were not marching with us in addition to the people that were. Lots of honks from horns as cars were driving past and fists raised in solidarity and thumbs up,” said Ellie Lalonde of Allegheny County’s North Hills, a research specialist at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital.

Huddled close enough to share umbrellas, rain-soaked workers on strike and their supporters capped off a day of marching across Downtown Pittsburgh and outside UPMC hospitals in the city’s Oakland neighborhood with a rally at the base of UPMC’s headquarters, the U.S. Steel Tower. Attendees included Pittsburgh Councilwoman Deb Gross, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, Democratic state Rep. Ed Gainey and Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

“The least they could do with their billions is make sure you get a fair wage, and that Pennsylvanians get better health care,” DePasquale told the crowd of protesters to loud cheers. “Your fight is our fight until the bitter end.”

While it is unusual for non-union workers to go on strike, labor stoppages over unfair labor practices are a protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act.

The Service Employees International Union notified UPMC on Sept. 20 of the workers’ intention to strike, and employees made sure their managers knew of their plans to miss their shifts.

UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps said there was no impact on patient care.

Protesters held up signs with sayings such as, “Hospital Workers Rising,” “UPMC: Respect Our Rights” and “We’re Worth More!”

“Many of us are living at poverty level,” Lalonde said. “We work in this system and provide health care, and yet we can’t afford to access it for ourselves — not without bills that are so outrageous that we avoid seeking out health care.”

In 2016, UPMC pledged to increase pay for entry-level positions to a minimum of $15 per hour by 2021.

It says that more than 25,000 employees make more than $50,000 annually, with an annual average salary of about $64,000.

About 10 people paid by UPMC made more than $2 million in 2016, up from seven who did so the previous year, the latest IRS filings show. UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff made $6.12 million in 2016, about $900,000 less than the previous year.

At the nation’s largest for-profit health care companies, CEOs make an average of more than $25 million, federal data show.

After an afternoon news conference, protesters headed a few blocks away Thursday night to Smithfield United Church of Christ for what organizers described as “frank and practical conversations about building an inclusive Pittsburgh and the new generation of leadership ready to confront entrenched patterns of inequality in the city.”

UPMC, which ended its 2016-17 fiscal year with $5.6 billion in net assets, is Pennsylvania’s largest employer outside of the government. The nonprofit health care system employs more than 80,000 people, including more than 4,600 physicians across 30 hospitals and more than 600 doctor’s offices.

An Aug. 6 decision by the National Labor Relations Board in Pittsburgh ordered UPMC to stop unlawful intimidation, threats and surveillance of workers and the removal of union literature from a break room. That order was issued against UPMC Presbyterian, Shadyside, Children’s and Mercy.

The NLRB also in August ordered UPMC to rehire illegally fired workers at UPMC Presbyterian and Shadyside, pay them for lost time, stop anti-union practices and inform employees of their rights to form a union. Three workers were fired.

The SEIU said in the statement that the hospital system “has yet to implement any remedies.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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