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Union Divides Over Pittsburgh Mayoral Race Endorsement

PA House of Representatives
Ed Gainey has the backing of one SEIU local ... but not of its sister union

In one sense, SEIU Healthcare’s endorsement of state Rep. Ed Gainey’s campaign for mayor of Pittsburgh Tuesday is a remarkable reversal. When incumbent Bill Peduto ran for the post in 2013, he had few more prominent supporters than the union, which was — and still is — bitterly fighting UPMC for the right to represent service workers at area hospitals. One of those who hoped to join the union, Jim Staus, still recalls a two-day protest outside UPMC’s Downtown headquarters in early 2014.

“I’m still thawing out,” he said of the frigid temperatures that day. But he and others were warmed when Peduto’s then chief-of-staff, Kevin Acklin, told them Peduto was returning from a trip to Washington D.C. to address their concerns. “I thought we won," Staus recalls. "I thought Peduto was going to come and basically tell [UPMC leaders] that you’ve got to give them their union and their pay raises.”


Yet seven years later, Staus has had to find other work after losing his job during the labor fight, and SEIU Healthcare finds itself still out in the cold. Its complaints over UPMC, among the region's largest and most controversial employers, seem likely to be a key critique of Peduto in the Democratic primary.


“He made promises and he just never followed through,” Staus said. “I think it’s time for a change.” 


SEIU Healthcare's embrace of Gainey was widely rumored even before the state representative made his run official. But Peduto has racked up a steady stream of endorsements in recent days, and the labor group's criticisms are in marked contrast to the perspectives of its own sister union, SEIU 32BJ, which represents custodians, security guards and other service workers. The mayoral race may well be shaped by which portrait of Peduto voters find more compelling.

Frozen Out?

Relations between Peduto and SEIU Healthcare are now as chilly as the weather in that 2014 protest. Peduto vocally opposed a 2018 effort by the union and allies that would have linked UPMC’s expansion of Mercy Hospital to include a “community benefits agreement,” a contract that would guarantee jobs and other social goods to the hospital’s Uptown neighbors.

Peduto argued that such an agreement could not be made a condition of the zoning approval that UPMC sought. But the union's resentment is still palpable. It cited the Mercy dispute in its statement backing Gainey, and blasted Peduto for receiving "thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from UPMC executives." In 2019, for example, UPMC doctors and executives contributed at least $3,800 to Peduto’s campaign, led by a $2,500 donation from top UPMC executive Jeffrey Romoff — though that’s a miniscule share of the nearly $231,500 Peduto raised that year.

Fissures between Peduto and the union were already developing in the summer of 2014, when Peduto dropped a lawsuit filed by his predecessor, Luke Ravenstahl, to challenge UPMC’s tax-exempt status as a way of extracting some revenue from the health care giant. 

Peduto argued the suit was counterproductive. UPMC had undertaken its own legal action against the city, a situation he likened to the sides holding guns to each other’s heads. He argued that a court battle would only have produced piecemeal gains at best, with challenges focusing on the use of slivers of UPMC’s sprawling real-estate empire. Dropping the suits would be a “show of good faith” that would encourage a more consensual approach, he maintained.

That approach, first outlined by city officials in 2014 and later referred to as “One Pittsburgh,” envisioned creating a fund to which UPMC and other large nonprofits could contribute money, with the donations earmarked for anti-poverty programs, parks and infrastructure, or other social needs. While progress has been made on some of those causes, like a Downtown homeless shelter, Peduto has repeatedly pushed back the schedule for unveiling the fund. The initiative has barely surfaced in months, though a city spokesperson said this week that talks around it were continuing.

In the meantime, the city expects less than $500,000 a year from “payments in lieu of taxes” made by tax-exempt employers — that’s down from nearly $2 million a year when Peduto took office, according to city budget documents. 

“It became clear that this was not just a difference in strategy, this was a difference in values,” said Silas Russell, an SEIU Healthcare vice president. And while there have been some improvements in the fate of workers — UPMC committed to increasing wages to $15 an hour over several years — SEIU Healthcare says credit for that goes to its own efforts, rather than any intervention by Pedto.

“I think being progressive [means] that when we have an imbalance of power, that it is incumbent upon our leaders to stand up and change that balance,” Russell said. “And I think that he is not a progressive.”

Gainey, for his part, has pledged to reinstate the lawsuit.

“I'm going to do everything in my power to ensure that major nonprofits like UPMC pay their fair share,” he said Tuesday night. “It's time. It's so time." And Russell and others credit Gainey with being a visible presence in the fight against UPMC and other powerful interests. “He has the track record of somebody who’s been in the fight, who hasn’t backed down, who is unafraid and who has shared the experience with our members and others in this city who have been through the struggle.” 

The Peduto campaign largely declined comment on SEIU Healthcare’s criticisms, except to point to the endorsements Peduto has racked up from many others in town. This week alone, that has included a union of 8,000 governmental workers and a number of local elected officials. Previously, the mayor has added unions representing paramedics, laborers, and food workers to his roster of support.

And sometime soon, Peduto will receive the backing of SEIU Healthcare’s sister union — whose members have most assuredly do not feel frozen out. 

Inside Politics

“I would argue Bill Peduto is the most pro-union, pro-labor mayor in memory,” said Sam Williamson, SEIU 32BJ's western Pennsylvania district director. “He’s stood with us to make Pittsburgh a fairer place to live, overseeing historic investments in affordable housing, the creation of the city’s first-ever affordable housing trust fund.”

Williamson hasn’t just been an observer in that process: Peduto appointed him to head the city’s lead development agency, the powerful Urban Redevelopment Authority, where Williamson sits as chair. (Peduto also appointed Gainey — a former ally — to the URA board, where Gainey was recently reelected, without rancor, as vice-chair.)

SEIU 32BJ has also championed some of Peduto’s signature proposals, like a paid-sick-leave bill now taking effect after a protracted legal fight, and a temporary enhancement of those benefits during the pandemic. This week City Council took up a bill, drafted by the administration, to tighten a moratorium on evictions while the virus rages. Other efforts arguably have less momentum — a city land bank intended to help remove blight has been moribund for years — but Williamson points to the wins as signs that ”the city’s goals and policy priorities are focused on economic equality and racial equality and justice.”

Peduto has also provided the kind of direct support to SEIU 32BJ members that Healthcare workers say they lack. Steve Kelley, a building cleaner who works Downtown, credits Peduto as a “man of his word” who provided moral and political support during a fraught contract negotiation. 

“When we were going into negotiations, we had a meeting on the South Side and Bill came over and he pledged his support,” Kelley recalled. “He let us know if anything were to go south, that he would be there for us. And that was something that comfortable everybody. It gave us the confidence to go forward with engitions and we won … the best contract probably we’ve ever had.” 

Williamson says that there are discussions within the mayor’s circle about the UPMC situation “pretty regularly,” and he attributes SEIU Healthcare’s struggles to the fact that UPMC has “fought that campaign viciously.” 

Williamson says 32BJ still supports its sister union: “Clearly we agree ... that UPMC workers, like all workers, deserve and need a union,” he said. And the two locals play down any friction between them. In a joint statement, the unions assert that they remain “united in fighting for a better future where everyone is paid a family-sustaining wage, has the right to join a union and can live in dignity. While our members’ Locals have ultimately decided to support different candidates, our campaigns will be respectful, focused on the important issues facing our city.”

The biggest challenge facing the city and the country as a whole, according to Williamson, is a gap of wealth and power between elites and everyone else.  “We need leadership that’s willing to utilize the levers available to them, the power available to them” to level the playing field he said. “If you look at Mayor Peduto's track record that’s exactly what he’s [spent] the last eight years doing, and what we expect him to spend the next four years continuing to do.”  

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.