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

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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.”

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“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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