A Test of Mettle | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Test of Mettle

Labor steels itself for a fight with UPMC

When Pittsburghers say "our universities and hospitals are the new steel mills," they usually mean it as a compliment. 

This Labor Day weekend, it became a war cry. And health-care giant UPMC, whose 55,000 employees make it the region's largest employer, became the central battleground. 

UPMC has been fending off a campaign to unionize hospital service workers — the employees who do everything from prepare cafeteria meals to ferry patients to the OR. Signs opposing UPMC were scattered throughout Downtown's Labor Day parade, and labor activists and politicians later crammed into a conference room in the United Steelworkers building with a blunt message: UPMC head Jeffrey Romoff is shaping up as the 21st century's Henry Clay Frick. 

"A long time ago, labor had a fight with the steel barons," local AFL-CIO head Jack Shea thundered. "Now we have the eds-and-meds barons, who are coming after low-wage workers in the same way." 

"[I]t's our turn to restore the middle class" established by labor's struggle, said Bill Peduto, the city's likely next mayor. "We owe it to all of those who had to sacrifice ... to make sure it's not lost." 

The message built on a report released a week earlier by Pittsburgh United, a labor-affiliated advocacy group. Titled "Unhealthy Choices," the report estimated that UPMC pays service workers a median wage of $12.18 an hour; UPMC, it argued, possessed "the power of steel without the promise of wages."

UPMC claims that when you factor in benefits, most service workers make more than $20 an hour. And even "Unhealthy Choices" suggests UPMC might not be dragging wages down, so much as failing to raise them up. The report quotes a 2011 UPMC memo asserting that executives had made "the prudent business decision ... to benchmark [wages] at the 50th percentile so that we neither lead nor trail the majority of employers." (Those execs set the bar higher when their own salaries are at stake: When Time magazine compiled a table of health-care CEO compensation in March, Romoff was at the top.)

Still, that's little comfort to UPMC employees like Christoria Hughes, who told the Steelworkers gathering she made just over $12 an hour. While she says a supervisor once told her "be glad you have a job," Hughes said, "There is no pride in having to budget for a hamburger, or in skipping breakfast."  

In any case, UPMC's size means it "absolutely has the power to lift up the lower part of the labor market" by raising wages to a floor of $15 an hour, says Stephen Herzenberg, who directs the labor-backed Keystone Research Center. "And the region will be healthier — in all the meanings of that word — if they were to do that."

Plenty of folks bridle at the notion that service workers deserve that kind of money. These are low-skill jobs! If employees don't like it, they should work somewhere else! 

If that sounds familiar, there's a reason. Working in mills was also once regarded as unskilled labor, best left to immigrants. As labor expert John Fitch, who studied Pittsburgh's steel industry, wrote in 1911, the "Slav" toiling in the mill "is misunderstood and despised ... until ‘Hunky' has come to be a convenient designation and a term of opprobrium as well." ("The suggestion that the right to quit offers ...  refuge from unjust conditions reveals ignorance," Fitch added: Workers "cannot jeopardize ... their families by leaving the known for the unknown.")

Decades later, after unionization drove up wages, working in the mill became an honorable, even noble, job. But we didn't pay steelworkers well because we valued their work; we ended up valuing their work because employers had to pay them well. 

The same thing could happen in the service sector. And the activists aren't going anywhere: A protest is set for Oakland on Sat., Sept. 7, with acts of civil disobedience in the offing.

But beating back that campaign doesn't require UPMC to win popularity contests. It just needs to win a union-certification vote. And that battle takes place on its own turf, where UPMC's tactics have already run afoul of federal labor regulators. Depending on how that fight plays out, UPMC execs might really get to take their place alongside H.C. Frick. 

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