Uniting in Protest: Criticism of UPMC has stretched beyond its own workers | Pittsburgh City Paper

Uniting in Protest: Criticism of UPMC has stretched beyond its own workers

"Where this goes, it goes for the whole city,"

Several unions from across the city showed support for UPMC workers.
Several unions from across the city showed support for UPMC workers.

Talk to UPMC workers at one of their many protests over the past few months, and they've likely told you they've been standing outside chanting because their wages are too low, their medical debt is too high and their employer won't let them unionize.

But they're not out there chanting alone. And as large as UPMC is — it is the state's largest employer — it has become a magnet for criticisms that are even broader.

As this issue was going to press on March 3, one of the largest UPMC protests to date continued in front of its headquarters at the US Steel Tower. At the demonstration's peak, around 9 a.m., more than 1,000 protesters spilled onto Grant Street, according to Sonya Toler, the city's public-safety spokesperson. Participants included members of the United Steelworkers, SEIU, the Amalgamated Transit Union, local politicians, students, adjuncts, clergy and mine workers, among others.

Unions across the region have spoken out in support of UPMC employees not just because they support better wages for health-care workers, but because they believe the future of organized labor is at stake.

"Where this goes — it goes for the whole city," says Shawn Foyle, standing in front of a yellow banner supporting the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. "Nobody's moving forward."

Steve Palonis, president of ATU Local 85 (which represents Port Authority workers), stood watching the protest unfold with a group of his members as chants of "Get up, get down: Pittsburgh is a union town," filled the street.

"They're firing people for trying to organize [and] they've got a goddamn food bank for Christ's sake," Palonis says of a controversial UPMC effort to provide food assistance to struggling employees. (UPMC has defended the initiative as an employee-led effort to support coworkers in dire straits.) "Pennsylvania could become the next right-to-work state," added Palonis, referring to laws, common in the South, that make unionizing difficult. "We're not going away."

UPMC spokesperson Gloria Kreps declined to comment.

At times, the demonstration encompassed causes that might seem remote from a Pittsburgh hospital room. Politicians, for example, criticized a Republican-backed bill in the state House that would limit the ability of public-sector unions to deduct dues from employee paychecks.

UPMC's treatment of workers "is a microcosm of what's going on statewide," says state Rep. Erin Molchany (D-South Hills). "It's incumbent upon [UPMC] to help grow Pittsburgh's middle class."

That economic argument was echoed by John Hanger, a Democratic candidate for governor who waded into the crowd of protesters and talked about the "destruction of unions over the past 30 years."

"UPMC now is a symbol of the greed and unfair treatment of workers across this state," he told City Paper, adding, "our economy needs more money in regular people's pockets."

The protest also drew students, some of whom were advocating for unionization of adjunct professors at Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh.

"We're all fighting for the same thing," says 19-year-old Pitt student Sandra Saba. "I know my professor made a wage equivalent to working at Trader Joe's. [...] It's absurd that [Pitt] treats people who provide our education like shit."

The March 3 protests come on the heels of a Feb. 27 demonstration in which several clergy members were cited for trespassing in an act of civil disobedience on the plaza outside the Steel Building.

"I have no regrets at all. We're going to continue to push forward with what's right," said Rev. Rodney Lyde, as he was escorted by police away from the US Steel Building during the February action.

"God is on our side."