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Union Re-label: Organization once worked at the steel mills, can it work at UPMC?

"This fight has already been fought."

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Teri Collins has spent the past 31 years working at UPMC's Montefiore Hospital — long before UPMC acquired the facility in 1990. And she says things used to be better than they are now. 

As Collins tells it, in the early days staffing levels were higher, raises were consistent. Montefiore was a better place to work. But raises are more sporadic now, she says, and there are fewer people doing the work.

"It's very concerning to me that in 2012 we're back to fighting for the same things that workers fought for and won years ago," says Collins on a recent day off from her job as a unit secretary. "I'm a realist. I don't expect to work at this job and make $60,000 or $70,000 a year. But, my God, there's no reason that anyone should make less than $15 an hour working at a job in this country. ... That's why we need a union."

Similar sentiments are percolating throughout the UPMC empire. In January, the Service Employees International Union began seeking to unionize some 20,000 to 30,000 employees — administrative and other non-medical staffers — across the UPMC system. That's roughly half of the employees at Western Pennsylvania's largest employer, the second largest in Pennsylvania.

If successful, the campaign would be a sea change for local labor. Since the collapse of the steel industry, private-sector unions have dwindled: Nearly 30 percent of private-sector workers were unionized a quarter-century ago; that rate of participation has dropped by a third. 

And if hospitals and universities are the steel mills of the 21st century, some say that the UPMC battle could be the next Homestead Strike — a chance to reassert worker's rights. 

"I appeared before the UPMC board a few weeks ago and the first thing I asked them was ‘why am I here?'" says Pittsburgh City Councilor Bill Peduto. "This fight has already been fought. Blood has been spilled in this city's labor struggles and that needs to be recognized and honored.

"We are the society that first built the middle class, and the middle class is going to be a critical ingredient in building a new Pittsburgh."

While some UPMC workers are already unionized, those relations between the health-care giant and SEIU have been contentious. 

The SEIU's Healthcare Pennsylvania local has already filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing UPMC of having "[s]urveilled, interrogated and intimidated employees" by threatening to fire them for actions "such as ‘talking about' the union."

"They don't want us talking to one another," says Collins. "Because they don't want us discussing how bad things are or how much better things could be. I know I've changed quite a few minds just by talking about the facts."

UPMC, in turn, has set up a website, www.upmccares.com, which accuses the union of bullying. In one handout, the hospital asserts that "The SEIU and its representatives have taken to threatening and harassing employees in their homes in an effort to coerce them into signing union cards." 

UPMC did not respond to requests for comment for this story or to requests to speak with employees who experienced the alleged coercion.

However the ensuing battle plays out — there's no timetable for an election — onlookers say the stakes for the region are high. 

Steve Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center, says unionizing would benefit more than just the UPMC employees. 

Because of UPMC's sheer size and influence, Herzenberg says what happens there will be felt throughout the region. "UPMC accounts for a lot of jobs in this region," says Herzenberg, whose think tank receives union backing and includes numerous union officials on its board. "And these jobs are as important to today's workers as manufacturing jobs were in the '50s, '60s and '70s."

If SEIU's bid is successful, he adds, it may spread hope to workers elsewhere and "change their understanding of the possible. If workers can organize against a giant like UPMC and win, why can't we do that here?" 

That in turn "could help trigger another period of shared prosperity," says Herzenberg. "It's what happened in the steel mills and it can happen now."

Of course, Pittsburghers still debate whether the unionization of steel mills was a good thing for the region. Some residents blame union contracts for driving up costs and creating friction with management — factors some say helped lead to the decline of American steelmaking. But Herzenberg notes one critical difference between the jobs at UPMC and those in the mill: Jobs in health care can't move overseas. An employer can't outsource patient transport, or housekeeping or food-service jobs to other countries.

"People think globalization has meant saying goodbye to the middle class but the percentage of jobs that can't go anywhere have grown," Herzenberg says. "The new middle class is in these jobs. I can do all the calculations and present all the air-tight data that I want, but in the end, the thing that is truly going to light the fire are results." 

Jake Haulk, executive director of the Allegheny Institute, a local conservative think tank, agrees that "medical services cannot be shipped out of the region or country." He also agrees that the stakes for the region in this battle are huge. But beyond that, he and Herzenberg have little common ground.

Aggressive unions, he warns, "will drive up costs and diminish the ability to manage effectively." Rather than compare hospitals to steel mills, he says that unions will have the same effect on UPMC as they have on government agencies. 

"The [Port Authority of Allegheny County] is probably a better comparison than the steel industry." The transit agency is "facing a virtual Armageddon in September" he says, saying that proposed service cuts are the result of a "long history of kowtowing to unions because of politics and the fear of strikes." He cites the fact that Pittsburgh is financially distressed and faces a massive pension debt stemming from union contracts, while the city's school district is poised to layoff nearly 300 teachers in the next school year. 

"Eventually, the costs get so high and efficiencies so low, that bankruptcy becomes the only real option," Haulk says.

"Hospitals need not follow the same path, but there are troubles ahead when recalcitrant, strident and aggressive unions start making demands and threaten walkouts," says Haulk. "If hospitals were not receiving a chunk of revenue from the government, zealous unions would quickly bankrupt them as well."

Even union partisans suggest that an organizing drive can be a means to an end, not necessarily an end in itself. 

"What we have is inequality and we need a solution," Herzenberg says. "You don't want it to be unionized, fine. What else have you got?"

"Things are not well at UPMC and [CEO] Jeffrey Romoff and other executives want to pretend that it is," agrees Teri Collins. "I would love it if Jeffrey Romoff came in one day and said, ‘I've had an epiphany. I don't need $6 million a year. I can struggle by with $3 million. Take that other $3 million and make things better for our workers.'

"That would be great, but the fact is it's never going to happen. So I guess we're going to have to do it this way."

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