UPMC hospital service workers have been trying to form a union for three years. Are they any closer? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

UPMC hospital service workers have been trying to form a union for three years. Are they any closer?

“It is still a struggle. We are still fighting though.”

On Aug. 4, shouts of “we fight, we sweat, put $15 on our check” echoed through the archways of the City-County Building as hundreds of protesters chanted in support of Pittsburgh hospital service workers. The rally was a gathering of UPMC and other area hospital workers whose main goals were to earn a $15-an-hour minimum wage and to form a union.

“The steel mills are not here anymore,” said UPMC Montefiore housekeeper Lou Berry during a speech at the rally. “We are the steel mills now. We have to take the city back.” (According to Allegheny County statistics, UPMC is the largest private-sector employer in the Pittsburgh area, with around 43,000 employees.)

If all this sounds familiar, it is because this story has been told before. In late July 2014, City Paper covered a rally of hundreds of protesters demonstrating in front of the UPMC headquarters on Grant Street. They cried out “$15 and a union” then, and signs at the August rally demanded the same thing.

In fact, UPMC hospital service workers have been trying to form a union since 2012, but their efforts have never advanced past enthusiastic rallies. Many elected officials attended the rally and spoke in support of the workers. Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess told the crowd that “Pittsburgh should support the way for health-care unions.” 

So why, with apparent broad support from politicians and growing worker backing, has a union not been able to form in more than three years of trying?

For one, unionization efforts at UPMC got off to a tumultuous start. When workers at UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Shadyside commenced talks with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 2012, management responded by playing dirty. According to a 2014 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative judge’s decision, UPMC engaged in “unfair labor practices,” such as threats of poor evaluations for those engaged in union activities, and banning employees from wearing union insignia.

click to enlarge Barney Oursler, of Pittsburgh United, leads a rally for fair pay and unionization for hospital workers. - PHOTO BY RYAN DETO
Photo by Ryan Deto
Barney Oursler, of Pittsburgh United, leads a rally for fair pay and unionization for hospital workers.

Furthermore, management created what the NLRB judge found to be an “illegal company union” called the Environmental Support Services Employee Council (ESS). According to Moshe Marvit, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, UPMC made the decision to create the ESS, helped write the group’s bylaws, solicited volunteers to participate and offered information and assistance. 

At the same time, more legitimate union efforts were squashed. The NLRB decision states that the ESS was allowed to post materials on hospital bulletin boards, while other union organizations were not.

And these practices continue, says Leslie Poston, a unit secretary at UPMC Presbyterian. 

She says management has asked her to take off her union button and to take down union flyers she put up in the locker room, even though the November 2014 NLRB decision states that these practices fell within her rights to organize.

“I thought when the judge came down with decision it would be easier, but it is still a struggle,” says Poston. “We are still fighting though.”

University of Pittsburgh business-administration professor and labor expert John Delaney says this is typical behavior for UPMC.

“UPMC is acting as they usually act: aggressively,” says Delaney. “They were aggressive with decisions regarding the Highmark split, and they are acting aggressive now.”

And though the health-care giant has come out swinging its massive fists toward union activity, most of what it is doing, according to Delaney, is perfectly legal. In 2012, management put the words “You can say NO to the SEIU. It’s your right” on computer screen-savers throughout the hospitals; this is actually within UPMC’s legal right to oppose the formation of unions.

“Some of the challenges that union efforts face are daunting … if an employer uses all of its resources, even those that are confined to the law,” Delaney says.

UPMC officials have not returned requests for comment, but Delaney believes they will do everything in their power to fight union organizing. He says that UPMC can appeal the current NLRB decision up to three times, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which means punishment might not come down on the health-care nonprofit for several years.

Delaney also questions the strength of the workers’ union efforts and the effectiveness of the rally. Considering that City Paper was the only media present at the rally, he says, “It may suggest that the union does not have adequate support.”

Marvit, of the Century Foundation, is a bit more optimistic that a union will eventually form.

“Even though the [union effort] has been going on for three years, the delay has not diminished the drive,” says Marvit.

However, while Marvit is encouraged by the workers’ desire to form a union, he understands the formidable task that is ahead of them. Back in July 2012, Marvit was part of a meeting with UPMC vice presidents to try to get management to sign an agreement to follow fair labor practices, but they refused to sign it.

“[People] are sort of limited to what they can do because UPMC is so powerful and big,” says Marvit. “They are not a business like Wal-Mart; you can’t really boycott health care.”

Marvit adds that there is also an understandable fear that hospital service workers could get “blackballed” from hospital jobs because UPMC has such a stranglehold on the local health-care market.

That could be contributing to delays in forming a union. “The fear is still there,” says Poston. “We are still trying to rally co-workers; we are going door to door until that fear is gone.”

Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh UNITED, a labor-advocacy organization, thinks those fears can be eliminated through unity. 

“We are trying to form the idea that we are in this together, we are stronger together,” says Oursler. “There were not just hospital workers at the rally.”

Steelworkers, adjunct professors and casino workers protested alongside hospital workers at the City-County Building rally. 

With the large number of hospital service workers in the city (Oursler says there are around 5,000) combining efforts with other Pittsburgh area unions, Oursler sees their influence continuing to grow.

Also supporting UPMC service workers’ efforts are service and technical workers at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH). Bridget Smith, a technical worker in AGH’s dietary department, says that about 2,000 service and technical workers at Allegheny General are now a part of a union, which formed in June.  

AGH workers formed their union in just two months. But Smith, who helped organize the union efforts, says this was the third time in the past 15 years that workers tried to organize.

“I think management respected our decision,” says Smith. “I think they did not want the bad publicity.”

“[AGH has] the same kind of workers living in the same city, and in the course of two months, got a vote by a huge majority,” says Marvit. “To me it was the employer. [AGH] opposed the union, but well within the limits of the law.”

But neither the precedent at AGH nor the bad press has shifted UPMC’s tactics, even if those factors drew extra attention from local politicians.

Pittsburgh City Council issued a proclamation on March 17, which stated “City Council stands with UPMC workers in their fight to win $15.00 and the right to form their union.” (Burgess basically repeated this proclamation to the crowd of protesters on the evening of the rally.)

Oursler also believes city council can affect UPMC, since the health-care company is always looking to expand, and zoning changes have to go through council. 

However, other than voting on future zoning decisions and proclamations, Delaney says that legally “the city council does not have the authority to adversely affect UPMC.”  

So who can make UPMC play nice?

Marvit says that outside of waiting for the NLRB punishment, or the unlikely filing of a federal antitrust case against UPMC, Mayor Bill Peduto has some ability to help the service workers’ cause.

“I think the mayor could negotiate, as a point of leverage, to get UPMC to agree to remain neutral on union organizing,” says Marvit. “However, I don’t know if UPMC would ever agree to that. They have spent too much money fighting union efforts.”

At last year’s rally in front of UPMC headquarters, says Oursler, Peduto told the crowd to place their trust in him to fight for their causes. 

The mayor is currently in negotiations with city nonprofits (UPMC being the largest of them) to try to get the nonprofits to give financial contributions to the city, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Currently, city nonprofits have tax-exempt status — status which, according to Oursler, saves UPMC $40 million a year in county property taxes.

When asked by CP whether he would request that nonprofits stay neutral on union-organizing efforts, Peduto responded, “Of course; there is no one issue that will make or break negotiations.”

But, Peduto hinted at the city’s weak position in simultaneously seeking financial contributions from nonprofits, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and an agreement to stay neutral in union formations.

Some argue that the mayor’s negotiating power would be stronger if he had not dropped a lawsuit against UPMC, which disputed the company’s nonprofit status. Peduto’s predecessor, Luke Ravenstahl, filed the lawsuit in March 2013, during the waning months of his administration, and challenged UPMC’s status as “a purely public charity.” The lawsuit states that UPMC generated more than $1 billion over a two-year span but spent less than 2 percent of that on charitable functions.

Peduto, who had supported the lawsuit during his mayoral campaign, dropped the suit in July 2014 and told CP that he preferred “to negotiate at a table where there aren’t guns.”

However, Marvit believes the mayor has left himself vulnerable at the negotiating table.

“What leverage does the mayor have? What is the incentive for UPMC to give in?” asks Marvit. “It would seem the smart thing would have been to keep the lawsuit, to provide a pressure point against UPMC.” 

Marvit says that union-organizing drives are either sprints or marathons. The AGH effort this year was a sprint, but it seems that workers at UPMC are in the middle of an ultra-marathon.

“With UPMC, it is not going to take a little longer [to form a union], it is going to take a lot longer,” says Marvit.

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