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Economy & Business

Despite Labor Victory, UPMC Says Union Has 'Failed Miserably'

Listen to part two of 90.5 WESA's Liz Reid's story.

An administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board on Friday issued his decision regarding allegations of labor violations at UPMC. The 123-page document recounts the minute details that led to the discipline or firing of eight workers at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside.

In one case, a worker and union supporter named Finley Littlejohn was fired because he failed to respond to pages from his dispatcher. Littlejohn was a transport worker, and his job was to move patients and their attached medical equipment around the hospital.

Littlejohn testified that he didn’t respond to the pages because he was having “difficulty” in the restroom, and he didn’t think it was sanitary to use his pager in that situation.

Judge Mark Carissimi ruled that UPMC failed to prove that its policy about responding to pages was evenly applied to all workers and that the hospital chain would have fired Littlejohn even if he had not been involved in union activity.

“We strongly disagree with the judge’s opinion,” said Paul Wood, vice president and chief communications officer at UPMC. “We feel that it was an unfair decision, and we also know that it was not an unexpected decision.”

Many of Carissimi’s findings are based on the belief that UPMC failed to prove that it had done nothing wrong. Wood pointed to a federal judge’s criticism of an NLRB subpoena in a related case.

“I think it speaks volumes that a couple weeks ago a federal judge had expressed his concern that the National Labor Relations Board had become a ‘litigation arm of the union and a co-participant in its ongoing organization efforts,’” Wood said.

When asked if NRLB judges were automatically allying themselves with the unions, Wood said “it certainly seems that way.”

“[Carissimi] did not cite the facts of the case in his opinion,” Wood said. “For example, we did not fire or discipline the four individuals in question for any union involvement or activity. These four individuals were fired entirely for matters related to poor work performance. So that was not reflected in the opinion.”

It is unclear what details of the firings Wood contends were not included in the document. In the case of Ron Oakes, another fired transport worker, the opinion includes in-depth descriptions of the system used to track workers’ assignments and activity, prior disciplinary actions, emails between managers and supervisors regarding Oakes’ performance and comparisons to other workers who also took “unauthorized breaks” but were not disciplined for it in the same way, or were not disciplined at all.

Wood said he could not comment on specific incidents and was unable to confirm some of the details included in the 123-page document.

“I have to admit, I lost interest after a few moments,” Wood said.

The judge also concluded that UPMC was disparately enforcing policies about what kinds of pins and lanyards employees could wear. Multiple workers testified that they wore their name badges on Steelers lanyards or sported St. Patrick’s Day pins in March with no problem, but that they were asked to remove union-related pins, badges and lanyards.

Carassimi ordered UPMC to reinstate four fired workers with backpay, and to expunge any disciplinary actions from their records and the records of four other employees.

Wood said UPMC will appeal the decision to the full National Labor Relations Board.

During a news conference Monday at the Pittsburgh City County building, state Rep. Ed Gainey scolded UPMC for considering such an appeal.

“The game should be over,” Gainey said. “If they decide to appeal it, can we call them community partners or community obstructionists?”

The decision has elected officials, workers, union representatives and faith leaders once again fired up over the struggle to unionize employees at the state’s largest non-governmental employer.

Rather than accepting UPMC’s offer to settle out of court, like they did the last time SEIU brought a case against UPMC, workers elected to wait for Carissimi’s ruling.

Al Turner is a former shuttle driver who lost his job after being caught talking on his cell phone while driving in a UPMC parking lot, with no passengers on board. Supervisors caught him on his phone because they had come to talk to him about the union pin he wore to work. The next day, a supervisor photographed Turner wearing the pin, and made him write a statement about why he was wearing it. Carissimi ruled that those actions were unlawful, and that UPMC failed to prove that Turner’s discharge was unrelated to his union support.

“Rather than cave to UPMC’s money … to make us go away, we know that what was right, not just for us, but for Pittsburgh,” Turner said Monday.

The idea that the labor struggle playing out at UPMC is not just about UPMC employees, but about all of Pittsburgh, permeates the rhetoric coming from SEIU and its supporters. Jim Staus was a supply specialist at UPMC from 2006 until he was fired last year. His job was to make sure each area of the hospital had the supplies it needed, from bandages to breathing apparatuses.

“We want the union because we want to join the middle class,” Staus said Monday. “We want to be able to support our families on our paycheck. We want to help build our neighborhoods and contribute to the economy.”

The rise of the middle class in America does correlate with the rise of unions, according to former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. That correlation is a central theme of his documentary “Inequality for All.”

“There’s a direct relationship,” Reich said. “You can see that in the mid-1950s when about 35 percent of all working Americans in the private sector were unionized … wages were pretty high, certainly relative to top executives. In fact, as the American economy grew, everybody’s wage went up.”

The salaries paid to UPMC’s top executives are often cited by SEIU and union supporters as evidence that UPMC does not care about its workers, and is not acting like the purely public charity it claims to be.

In 2013, CEO Jeffrey Romoff made $6.55 million, about 260 times what Staus would have made working for $11.81/hour.

But Romoff told NPR’s Jeff Brady in July that that comparison is worn out.

“Hearing about how I’m paid is something that has become routinely boring because it’s been in the newspapers for years and years and years,” Romoff said. “It’s undeniable and there’s no counter-argument to it. The more important question, is what is everybody else paid.”

Romoff said the average service worker wage of $12/hour is a good wage, and spokesman Paul Wood said the majority of employees agree.

“The union has failed and they’ve failed miserably in trying to organize our employees,” Wood said. “At the end of the day, our employees have already decided they do not want a union to represent them."

With the latest round of allegations decided, it may soon be known whether UPMC service workers do or do not want a union, though SEIU representatives and workers alike are still uncertain about when an official vote might be held.