About 150 University of Pittsburgh janitors and supporters organized by Local 585 of the Service Employees International Union got commuters to honk their horns in annoyance by blocking both lanes of Centre Avenue at Washington Place for half an hour before being arrested. They were protesting near One Chatham Center, where minutes earlier the union had attempted to deliver a petition to UPMC Health Plan headquarters, demanding affordable coverage for Pitt employees. Starting July 1, they face big increases in premiums, co-payments and deductibles. "We cannot afford to pay for this plan and still provide for our families," read the petition, which was turned away at the door. Police subsequently arrested 17 demonstrators who refused to leave the intersection.
SEIU represents about 400 cleaners, groundskeepers and maintenance people at Pitt workers who typically earn about $11.95 an hour, placing them among the lowest-paid of more than 10,000 university employees affected by the new plan. Under that plan, to get family coverage similar to what they now receive for $110 a month, Pitt employees will have to pay $192 a month. Many say that will require them to seek state-funded coverage for their children or else drop coverage altogether.
As "one of the largest and wealthiest employers in Pittsburgh & [and] a world leader in healthcare research and delivery," contended the petition, Pitt and UPMC "have the ability to be part of the solution to the nation's healthcare crisis." Pitt has defended the new plan as the best it can offer in the face of skyrocketing health-care costs.
SEIU members have requested a court injunction against Pitt to prevent the new costs from being implemented during ongoing contract negotiations with the union. A hearing is scheduled for June 17, but the protest's concerns were not limited to Pitt employees. Rising premiums also trouble more than 1,000 Downtown janitors represented by SEIU, whose contract is up for renewal this fall. SEIU spokesperson Tom Hoffman says that due to increased costs, just 10 percent of Downtown janitors are now enrolled in family coverage, compared to nearly all of them a decade ago.
The 17 volunteers arrested at the May 31 protest were released at 4 a.m. the next day, says Hoffman; they were charged with obstructing an intersection and failure to disperse.
But it was worth the trouble to Bill Beu, a Pitt groundskeeper who spoke with reporters just after police arrived at the protest. Beu's 19-year-old son, Michael, has encephalitis, which Beu says is the result of an HMO's refusal to fund treatment for a sinus condition eight years ago. Beu said he was demonstrating "so people won't have to make a choice between feeding their child and health care." And he was willing to get arrested for that? "I'm willing to march into hell," he said. "Whatever it takes."