UPMC workers and supporters strike for union rights, livable wages

UPMC workers and supporters held a one-day strike May 28. (Current Photo by Annabelle Hanflig)

By Annabelle Hanflig

Pittsburgh Current Intern

Just 45 minutes before board members of UPMC Shadyside and Presbyterian Hospitals convened a public meeting at UPMC Montefiore in Oakland May 28, workers employed by those very hospitals stood outside chanting, “let us in.”

Employees of UPMC and their supporters participated in a one-day strike today to demand that UPMC “respect workers’ rights, to cancel its employees’ debt, to accept every patient who needs care, and to return to its charitable mission,” according to the protesters’ Facebook event page. Many of the workers participating in the strike hold second or third jobs, owe thousands to UPMC in medical debt and struggle to pay their own personal bills. These battles, they said, could be mitigated if UPMC were to hear and act upon their demands.

The strike occurred the same day as the public meeting, but hopeful attendees were turned away when hospital security told them they would’ve had to register for the event in advance. After frustrated pleas from a crowd comprised of striking workers, protestors, and elected officials, UPMC employees and a few others were granted access. Those who didn’t make it inside were invited into the hospital lobby to watch the hearing through a closed-circuit livestream.

Beginning with a rally on the corner of Terrace and Darragh streets and shifting to the entrance of UPMC Montefiore, workers, protestors and elected officials assembled to face some of the most powerful figures from the largest employer in the Commonwealth and implore their needs be met.

Nila Payton, a striking worker and administrative assistant in pathology at UPMC Presbyterian, said she’s “barely scratching the surface of surviving” with her current wage. Payton has been in her job for 13 years and didn’t begin making $15 an hour until three years ago. She believes that UPMC is trying to shut out her voice and others like it by preventing workers from unionizing.

“We don’t want to fight UPMC, we want to work with UPMC,” she said. “But they’re making that difficult by shutting us out of board meetings that we should have a say so in.”

An advanced patient care technician at UPMC Montefiore who declined to be named for this story, supported the efforts of her fellow workers with her attendance at the strike. While she expressed satisfaction with her own workplace environment, she still felt that the protests were necessary.

“I don’t feel like from the top, [UPMC] truly cares about the culture of respect, fairness and dignity the way they say they do, and the culture of a company certainly comes from the top down. If they really cared about these things, they would do a better job of putting their money where their mouth is.”

The strike coincided with a number of other immediate and impending issues for UPMC workers and patients alike. Many expressed concern with the dispute between Highmark and UPMC, which is drawn from the expiration of a consent decree set to take place at the end of next month. From June 30 on, UPMC would consider any patient with Highmark insurance being treated at many major UPMC hospitals as out-of-network. This would leave thousands of patients looking for new doctors, hospitals and plans of care.

From the back of an AFL-CIO bus with a sign reading ‘four-time cancer survivor’ hung around her neck, Evalyn Bodick spoke about how this change would affect her personal health. Bodick, whose doctors are currently monitoring a new spot on one of her lungs, has received care at UPMC St. Margaret and would have to search for a new group of doctors spread out across a variety of UPMC hospitals if the consent decree were to expire.

“When you’ve had your doctor for years, they know what medication I need, what I’m allergic to and what is the best plan of health to help me through this,” she said. “They are taking away my life and not just me, but others who I’m here to stand for. They’re denying us access to the health and treatment that we deserve.”

Pittsburgh City Councilor Erika Strassburger also expressed concern with the intentions of the feud between Highmark and UPMC, and how it’s bled into the livelihoods of her constituents.  

“It’s more about winning than it is about providing a true service to the public, and that’s where people in my constituency are starting to see the troubling practices of UPMC.”

In a case argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, it was decided today that further examination of the consent decree was needed before its expiration could go into effect. The case is being sent to Commonwealth Court for further proceedings and the partnership between UPMC and Highmark will remain until the exploration has concluded.  

Many at the strike also expressed dissatisfaction with UPMC’s status as a nonprofit organization. Workers and supporters believed that UPMC has taken advantage of its tax breaks by not investing the funds back into their workers or their communities. In a speech given at the strike, State Representative Ed Gainey gave an emotional plea for UPMC to remedy this by ending inequality of salaries among UPMC employees.

“When you’re an institution that’s nonprofit and you can pay your people billions of dollars in upper management, there should be no reason why you can’t pay your workers who take care of patients, who make sure the hospital is clean, a living wage,” he said. “Lets treat our workers with the level of respect you would treat your family with, because you wouldn’t want your family working for the peanuts that you’re paying people right now.”

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said UPMC has been “behaving like every other corporation in America by putting money ahead of the patient care they provide.” Henry also saw the initial exclusion of public attendance at the board meeting as a message from UPMC to its workers. “I think they’re saying that workers’ voices in the healthcare of this community don’t matter,” she said.

Other high-ranking individuals and elected officials in attendance at the strike found similar patterns in UPMC’s behavior. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who saw the removal of the UPMC hospital in Braddock and its lasting impact on his community while serving as mayor, said he hasn’t seen UPMC do the right thing in 10 years.

“This idea that they can behave and act in a way that is counterproductive to the greater welfare of Pennsylvania… we have to check that,” he said. “It’s too late for my hospital, but what I would like to see UPMC do is just do what Highmark’s already agreed to.”

Through his frustration, Fetterman expressed hope for the future of healthcare in Pennsylvania and the possibilities of what can be done when people come together to demand healthcare justice. With a democratic majority on the Supreme Court and a strong case by the Attorney General, he said, UPMC could be forced to do the right thing.

“They’re a big organization, but they’re not nearly as big as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

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