In a Jam | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In a Jam

UPMC controversy is a defining issue for Peduto, and Pittsburgh

This might come as little consolation if you were stuck on the Veteran's Bridge during last Monday's morning rush hour, or if you were stranded Downtown waiting for a bus. But when a March 3 protest at UPMC's headquarters effectively shut down Grant Street, demonstrators weren't just obstructing traffic. They were also giving Mayor Bill Peduto some room to move.

The two-day demonstration outside the US Steel Building was spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union, which is seeking to organize hospital service workers. But after allowing the protest to spill into the street on Monday, Peduto effectively halted it on Tuesday. All it took to disperse the crowd was a brief statement read outside the building by Peduto's chief of staff, Kevin Acklin.

Even the UPMC brass on the building's uppermost floors had to hear the message: Peduto has enough leverage with SEIU to send them home ... at least for now.

And in a March 5 press conference, Peduto made clear that his agenda was larger than UPMC's labor dispute — larger even than UPMC itself.

Peduto, who'd met with CEO Jeffrey Romoff earlier that day, told reporters that while he hoped to mediate the labor fight, he was also urging UPMC to settle its long-standing feud with Highmark, the area's largest insurer. And as City Paper first reported last week, Peduto also hopes to significantly increase the amount large nonprofits — UPMC foremost among them — contribute to city coffers. All three issues "are sort of tied together," Peduto said.

Taking on the state's largest employer would be a gamble for any politician, and Peduto has more to lose than most. No elected official has been a bigger champion of the "eds and meds" economy: Many of those institutions are sited in Peduto's old East End city council district. Yet few officials have been as closely aligned with SEIU: While in council, Peduto championed a "prevailing wage" bill with provisions tailor-made for SEIU members. They, in turn, served as foot soldiers in his mayoral campaign.

Given all that, it would be easy for Peduto to sidestep the fight entirely. The safer move would be to burnish Pittsburgh's credentials as "the next Portland" or "the next Seattle." Laying claim to such a title, after all, is often less about how we make a living than about how we pad our lifestyle: the availability of things like bike lanes, locally sourced produce and paradigm-altering cocktails. Peduto's first tough political stance as mayor, in fact, was in support of ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber, against the objections of entrenched taxi companies. And even as Acklin was addressing the UPMC protesters, Peduto was in Washington, D.C., speaking to the National Bike Summit.

But even Seattle doesn't live on lattes alone. Union members make up a whopping 18.5 percent of the Seattle-area workforce; 15.5 percent of workers in the Portland metro area carry union cards. After decades of deindustrialization, by contrast, Pittsburgh's own unionization rate stands at just 13 percent.

It's up to UPMC's workers to decide whether they want to help boost that percentage. For many older Pittsburghers, unions are a source of ambivalence; for many younger Pittsburghers, of indifference. But sooner or later, Peduto — and the rest of us — will have to reckon with basic questions of economic fairness posed by the rise of mega-nonprofits. And those questions are bigger than UPMC, which is why we're seeing the stirrings of a labor movement among university adjuncts, and among culture workers at area museums.

Depending on how we resolve those struggles, Pittsburgh can be for the post-industrial age what it was in the era of Big Steel: a turning point in workers' fight for a bigger role in a changing economy. Otherwise, we might just be another place to stop in for a $14 cocktail.

Eventually, even The New York Times will get tired of writing upbeat stories about us. And even Pittsburghers will get tired of reading them. By then, hopefully, we'll have shored up the fairness of our tax base, the justice of our health-care system and the prosperity of our workers.

If we don't, it won't matter whether there's ever another protest on Grant Street. Because we won't be getting anywhere at all.