At about 12:45 Sunday afternoon, hundreds of marchers along Fifth Avenue — who had been chanting "U-P-M-C, you are not a charity" minutes before — fell silent and dropped to the ground in the middle of the intersection with Atwood Street. With the hospital giant's Oakland nerve center a block away, and a police escort looking on, a bagpipe played "Amazing Grace."
The moment capped a Sept. 8 protest that was otherwise part labor rally, part block party — the latest salvo in a stepped-up campaign by the Service Employees International Union to organize hospital service workers. After singing two verses of the hymn, marchers cut down to Forbes Avenue and returned to their Bigelow Boulevard starting place, where they gathered for hot dogs and live music in the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning.
Also being served: a heaping dose of resentment for what speakers alleged were UPMC's "bullying" tactics, like its resistance to the SEIU's organizing drive, and its refusal to negotiate a new contract with Highmark.
"The only way to get a bully to change his ways is to stand up to him," SEIU Healthcare PA President Neal Bisno told demonstrators shortly before the march stepped off.
State Rep. Erin Molchany (D-South Hills) led an array of speakers, among them Alleghney County Controller Chelsa Wagner and Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb, who complained about the fiscal impact of UPMC's tax-exempt status. City Councilor Natalia Rudiak cited election returns — including her own victory during the May primary — as proof that voters wanted to challenge UPMC's perogatives. "Voters supported the candidates who are actively standing up to UPMC," Rudiak said.
Also speaking was former patient-transporter Ron Oakes, a union supporter who was fired, reinstated after a union complaint, and then fired again. "If they think they're going to silence me, they're out of their mind," he said. (In April, UPMC told the Pittsbugh Tribune-Review that Oakes was fired for absenteeism.)
The crowd encompassed a range of unions, races and ages. A rough count by City Paper tallied more than 400 participants. Organizers say that nearly 700 signed in.
Whatever the number, UPMC was not impressed: "Rallies of this kind demean the excellent care we provide to our patients," it said in a statement, and "cast UPMC hospitals — and the great people who work here every day — in the worst possible light."
In fact, the quality of medical treatment and hospital staff were just about the only things not roundly denounced during the gathering. (Though one protester did hold aloft a sign asserting that UPMC stood for "Unable to Provide Meaningful Care.") Criticism focused largely on UPMC's executive suites, and CEO Jeffrey Romoff in particular: "Hey Romoff, get off it / You're not a nonprofit!" was one marching chant.
What's next for the campaign? Labor activist Barney Oursler noted that late last week, the National Labor Relation Board found there was merit to several unfair-labor-practice complaints that the SEIU had filed against UPMC. That finding sets in motion a process to resolve the complaints, though there has been no formal hearing on those allegations.
"The legal front is going to heat up," says Oursler. "On the street, we have to keep the pressure on."