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Activists call for $20 minimum wage, more community influence on UPMC

pittsburgh united upmc.jpg
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Activists from Pittsburgh United calling for UPMC to raise wages and allow workers to unionize.

The city of Pittsburgh and its largest employer are both undergoing a historic change in leadership, and activist groups are calling for renewed debate about UPMC’s obligations to its host city and the more than 50,000 people it employs regionally.

In a 28-page white paper titled “A New Day in the Neighborhood,” longtime UPMC foe Pittsburgh United calls for “a more fair and balanced relationship between decision-makers at UPMC and the community that it is meant to serve.” Such a relationship, it argues, would include a $20 minimum wage for workers, a “robust” commitment to support the city financially, more diverse and inclusive board of directors, and support for a long-running unionization effort.

"For far too long the people of Pittsburgh have been calling for change," said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, who heads Pittsburgh United, at a Thursday morning press conference outside UPMC's Downtown headquarters.

“Pittsburghers are tired of propping up an institution that pays poverty wages, while violating its workers' rights ... and refuses to pay its fair share," Rafanan Kennedy said. "UPMC has a new CEO, and Pittsburgh will have a new mayor. To them we say, enough is enough. ... It is a new day, and we need new solutions. "

Pittsburgh United and its allies don’t lack for leverage to make such demands. This past May, state Representative Ed Gainey won the Democratic nomination for mayor, thanks in no small part to support from the Service Employees International Union’s Healthcare local. Silas Russell, who spearheads the local’s political activities in the region, sits on Pittsburgh United’s board.

Some of the demands are familiar: SEIU has been seeking to unionize hospital service staff for over a decade, and Pittsburgh mayors have been struggling for even longer with the challenge of how to balance the city’s books when some of its largest employers are healthcare and education providers that are tax-exempt.

Meanwhile, organizers and workers first called for a $15 an hour minimum wage nearly a decade ago, and in 2016 UPMC agreed to reach that level by this year. But the report argues that “by 2021, inflation has eroded the value of [that] increase considerably … to have the purchasing power of $15 in 2016 dollars, a worker today would need to start at $17.28.”

Pittsburgh United’s report also calls for UPMC to forgive medical debt owed by its workers. And it sketches out a familiar history, in which the city’s once-mighty manufacturing sector is replaced by healthcare and other service industries — industries whose workforce, it argues, is poorly compensated and less unionized than the blue-collar workforce it has replaced.

The “care economy,” it says, has driven the creation of lower-income jobs, in the process dragging down wages in other industries and spawning crises which include poor community health and struggles to find affordable housing. The report also revisits some old grievances, like a 2018 fight over whether UPMC should have committed to a more expansive community-benefits agreement while expanding Mercy Hospital. (The hospital did commit to workforce development initiatives and to providing a clinic to treat addiction.)

The result, it contends, is “the paradox of UPMC: as our society has become more distressed, unequal and more insecure, we have become more dependent on an entity that drives inequality and insecurity.” It urges elected officials to “make unions a policy priority and ... use organic points of contact between city, county and state government and UPMC, such as contracting and grant-making, to encourage labor peace and labor management cooperation.”

But the report’s release comes on the cusp of a change in leadership for the city. Gainey won the Democratic nomination for mayor this spring by pledging to revive a lawsuit that would challenge UPMC’s tax exemptions: That case, filed by then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, was dropped by outgoing Mayor Bill Peduto in pursuit of a more collaborative approach.

Nor did the announced departure of longtime UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff in July — or the naming of successor Leslie Davis — change Gainey’s tone. “The people of Pittsburgh have fueled its growth into a $20 billion integrated delivery system as patients and as workers, and through premium payments and tax subsidies,” he said in a statement at the time. “Pittsburghers expect a return on that investment and need UPMC ... to pay its fair share back to the community that made its success possible.”

Hopes were high among those at the report's unveiling that Gainey will be able to change the dynamic.

"We're all fed up," said Summer Viscusi, who works with people who have autism and development difficulties at Western Psych. "I have a lot of faith in Ed Gainey though, to really push the issue for us, so I hope that action happens sooner than later."

"I am sick of being underpaid. I get beat up every day," she added. Workers at Target make a wage much like her own $15 an hour, she said, and "I have a harder job than a cashier."

Gainey himself said after the event that he had met with UPMC leadership. "We had a great first meeting, the meeting went well," he said. But he added, "We're committed to doing what's necessary to make sure they pay their fair share."

But the white paper released today says almost nothing about Gainey’s pledge, or the prospects for restarting a court challenge. It calls for a “robust community benefits agreement” between UPMC, the city, SEIU and community groups. But there is only a glancing reference to the Ravenstahl legal challenge, and no explicit discussion of renewing it.

Peduto had hoped that UPMC and other large nonprofits would be willing to open up their checkbooks to fund social goods like affordable housing, rather than contributing directly to the city’s bottom line. The white paper rejects that approach: “Financial contributions should come in the form of unrestricted funds, allowing Pittsburgh residents, through their elected representatives, to have a say over how our healthcare dollars are invested,” it asserts. It also calls for the city and county controller to “regularly assess local tax subsidization of UPMC facilities” as a means of “spark[ing] important community conversations.”

And if activists have their way, those conversations are only just beginning.

This story will be updated with a response from UPMC.

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.