After a few delays, UPMC's trial on National Labor Relations Board allegations that it engaged in "unfair labor practices" against workers who attempted to unionize finally got underway Wednesday.
Based on complaints from employees and labor union SEIU, the NLRB issued the complaint against UPMC last fall, accusing the healthcare giant of "threatening, interrogating, and intimidating employees" who showed an interest in forming a union. On Wednesday, attorneys on both sides gave opening arguments in the trial, which is expected to last about three weeks.
Attorney Suzanne Donsky, the general counsel representing the NLRB, told NLRB Administrative Law Judge Mark Carissimi that the complaint against UPMC was unusual.
"These are special remedies that the general counsel seeks because this is not a typical case," Donsky said. "This case comes with a significant history that can’t be ignored."
The NLRB previously brought nearly 80 similar charges against UPMC, but that case was settled without an admission of guilt on UPMC's part. UPMC agreed to reinstate two employees who lost their jobs while engaging in what the NLRB charged were legally permitted union-organizing activities.
"In the beginning, that remedy worked for a short period," Donsky said, adding that employees became more willing to wear buttons and talk to union reps about organizing. "If only it had ended there." Donsky said that "the ink was barely dry" on the settlement when UPMC resumed its activities.
Donsky said employees were again interrogated about the union; four employees were terminated, including one who had been reinstated under the settlement. UPMC's actions, Donsky said "reeks of anti-union animus."
But attorney Mark Stubley of the labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins, said any "extraordinary" remedies against UPMC and its hospitals would be "outrageous."
"There is a record of 50 years of providing outstanding healthcare to this community," Stubley said. He said the hospitals in question, UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Shadyside, have "16,600 employees and we’re talking about four discrimanees? The campaign to organize has gone on for two years but there has been no petition in two years" seeking a union-ratification vote.
In a separate statement, UPMC questioned the motives behind the complaint.
"SEIU has resorted to charges of unfair labor practices which are a common tactic of its organizing campaigns," the statement said. The statement predicted the union will be as "unsuccessful in pursuing these charges before the NLRB as it has been in attempting to organize UPMC."
The statement concludes: "For the SEIU, this is no longer about representing its members but rather about advancing its political goals by creating a media spectacle of protests and unfair labor practice charges that will resurface as long as UPMC resists the SEIU organizing activity."
Outside the hearing, SEIU, UPMC employees and several public officials held a rally in support of the workers’ rights to unionize.
"I believe that a person who works full time and does a good job at a $10 billion dollar global healthcare system out to have a path out of poverty," said 10-year UPMC employee Leslie Poston in a release. "I'm not looking for a handout, and I'm not looking for $6 million a year. But I'd like to be able to make ends meet."