Union officials working to organize workers at Pittsburgh health services giant UPMC are hoping history repeats itself.
In the 20th century, Pittsburgh steel mills were the epicenter of labor battles over wages and working conditions that boosted national unionization efforts.
And Neal Bisno, president of SEIU Healthcare PA, believes the ripple effect from organizing UPMC workers could have the same impact this century since the health care company -- the region's largest employer -- has a symbolic status.
"The U.S. Steel building is now occupied, not by U.S. Steel on the top floor, but by UPMC," he said. "UPMC has succeeded U.S. Steel as the dominant economic institution."
That's why the drive to unionize UPMC has taken on a national focus for the Service Employees International Union, which hopes efforts here provide momentum to make headway elsewhere. The union is working with UPMC employees in Pittsburgh, Altoona and Erie. Last month, 800 registered nurses at UPMC Altoona ratified their first contract since UPMC took over the hospital last year.
For its part, UPMC argues that it pays fair wages, saying the average service worker in the hospital system earns $12.81 an hour and workers start at $11 an hour, which is higher than the $10.10 minimum wage recently proposed by President Barack Obama.
"We take very seriously our role as a leading employer and are proud of the compensation that we offer. We choose to pay our service workers in Pittsburgh at higher wages than the local market average, with our average service workers earning $12.81 per hour or $26,644 annually," UPMC Spokesman Paul Wood said in a prepared statement.
The move toward unionization -- which last week got the attention of much of Pittsburgh by clogging up Monday morning rush hour traffic with protests that spilled onto Grant Street -- began about two years when a few workers started talking to each other about forming a bargaining group, Mr. Bisno said.
He said the drive is still being organized locally.
But the effort is drawing national attention and even getting assistance from Berlin Rosen, a New York city public relations firm that worked on the campaign of New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio. SEIU would not say how much it is spending on the UPMC effort.
The union has a history of organizing hospital workers around the country. Mr. Bisno was involved in a campaign that organized nurses at Allegheny General Hospital in 1999. In 2010, 700 nurses and service maintenance workers at Alle Kiski Medical Center (now Allegheny Valley Hospital) voted to join SEIU.
UPMC contends the latest organizing drive has been a failure.
"The SEIU has failed to organize our employees despite their attempts for more than two years," Mr. Wood said. "There has been neither petition nor vote, and clearly our employees have spoken by choosing not to have the SEIU represent them.
"Our employees recognize the value of being able to have direct and open dialogue about all issues directly with their managers, and they also know that they do not need the SEIU to take their money in the form of dues or to come between them and the work they are committed to doing, which is caring for our patients."
The workers protesting Downtown last week would not agree with those assertions.
Leslie Poston of Wilkinsburg learned about the union's efforts from a manager. Ms. Poston, who has worked as a medical secretary on the heart and lung transplant floor for the last 10 years, said a manager told her about the organizing campaign and listed the reasons why the union was a bad idea and why she should not talk to anyone associated with it.
Intrigued, she went to a union meeting. "From then on, it has been full-steam ahead," she said.
Last Monday morning, Ms. Poston spoke to the crowd at the rally outside of the U.S. Steel building.
"I cried twice. I could not believe all the support we had," she said.
She believes it is important to raise the wages paid by Pittsburgh's largest employer. While she has been nervous that her efforts might have negative ramifications for her own work life, "It's for something that is going to better my life and might better my kids' lives."
Ms. Poston has been identified as one of the workers against whom the hospital is charged with retaliating in a complaint filed in January by the National Labor Relations Board. The trial for that case started in February and has been going on in the background of the recent protests. It is scheduled to resume at the end of this month with UPMC presenting its defense.
In addition to seeking higher wages and allowing workers to vote on whether to have a union, the crowds gathered Downtown asked that medical bills of workers owed to UPMC be forgiven.
That would help Ms. Poston because, in a modern equivalent of owing her soul to the company store, she has $15,000 in medical bills that are due to her employer. The bulk of that was for surgery with a $9,000 co-pay and the rest is for a three-day hospital stay in October.
Chaney Lewis of Wilkinsburg transports patients who are on monitors. His mother used to work at the hospital 20 years ago. He said he started at $1 an hour above what she made when she left.
Now, after nine years there, he is making $11.97 an hour and cannot afford to pay his share of health benefits, which has left him with medical bills from being seen in the hospital's emergency room. He was also named in the federal labor relations board complaint as being disciplined for violating hospital rules in trying to promote the union.
Although UPMC does not believe its service workers need union representation, Mr. Wood said the hospital is not against unions.
"We have over 40 years of positive union relationships. UPMC is not anti-union. Last week, we negotiated a new contract with 800 SEIU-represented nurses in Altoona. Presbyterian/Shadyside has over 300 organized employees..." he said.
SEIU says that's just the point. Some of the higher paid workers, such as operating engineers and security workers at Presbyterian/Shadyside, are benefiting from being unionized, but the lowest paid workers need help.
"The reason the UPMC organizing effort is so important to Pittsburgh as well as to the nation is that we now have an [education and medical]-based economy in this region with UPMC as the dominant institution in that economy," Mr. Bisno said.
"UPMC workers are leading the movement nationally and when UPMC workers succeed it will spark workers across the country."
Ann Belser: email@example.com or 412-263-1699.