Pittsburgh mayor, UPMC CEO to huddle

Peduto to mediate issues between health care giant, community

Following two days of protests outside of UPMC's Downtown headquarters, Mayor Bill Peduto will sit down with UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff today to discuss many of the issues around living wages and unionization that upwards of a thousand protesters brought to the sidewalks of Grant Street.

But the meeting -- which was not set in response to the protests -- will have other topics on the agenda, including whether the medical conglomerate will give anything to the city in the form of payments in lieu of taxes. As a purely public charity, UPMC is largely tax-exempt. Mr. Peduto said he planned to continue a lawsuit started by his predecessor, Luke Ravenstahl, to strip it of its public charity status and said Tuesday that it could be used "as an opportunity for discussion" as he continues negotiations with UPMC.

And he also plans to insert himself in the icy stalemate between UPMC and Highmark, which could leave Highmark subscribers locked out of UPMC's facilities next year.

UPMC protesters react to Mayor Peduto statement

Another protest against UPMC broke up today after a statement from Mayor Bill Peduto was read urging a truce and negotiations. (Video by Darrell Sapp; 3/4/2014)

"In recent months the conflicts between UPMC, its stakeholders, its patients, its employees, taxpayers all have been escalating," he said. "These conflicts are not simply going to resolve themselves. They'll negatively affect our business climate and they'll also limit the prospects for economic development in this city. I've reached out to both sides to begin mediating."

Though the meeting was set before marchers disbanded Tuesday, the protesters nonetheless added new urgency to resolve some of the issues between UPMC, the state's largest private employer, and the larger community. Mr. Peduto said he's "reached out to both sides to begin mediating."

“I’m hoping this will mark a change in the discussions … so that all of these issues that have simply been lingering for so long will be resolved,” he said.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood responded in a statement that "UPMC, likewise, has a stake in and is committed to the success of both the city and the region. We have an ongoing relationship with Mayor Peduto and are looking forward to discussions on a multitude of issues."

On Monday, around a thousand people gathered in front of the U.S. Steel Tower, where UPMC is headquartered, staging a protest that lasted throughout much of the bitterly cold day. Police shut down Grant Street when the protesters spilled out into the street, snarling traffic for hours. Protesters, assembled by SEIU Healthcare, demanded higher wages and the right to unionize for the medical system's blue-collar workers.

In response, Mr. Wood reiterated that the health system pays its service workers an average of $12.81 an hour, "higher wages than the local market average."

Hundreds of protesters returned to the front of the building again Tuesday morning delivering the same message. At around 9 a.m., Kevin Acklin, the mayor's chief of staff, waded into the crowd with council president Bruce Kraus and read a statement from Mr. Peduto telling protesters that he was "in discussions with UPMC leadership." In the statement, Mr. Peduto told them that their message had been heard and urged them to disband. Shortly thereafter, they left their temporary outpost on Grant Street.

The mayor's message instilled confidence in some of the protesters.

"We're very optimistic," said Lou Berry, who said he was a worker. "I think Mayor Peduto is sympathetic to the needs of the city, and one of those needs is better jobs for everyone."

At Tuesday's news conference, Mr. Peduto largely backed the protesters' sentiment and also supports their right to unionize.

"No employee of UPMC should have to live in poverty," he said. "Their economy dictates the way this state operates. They have the ability to transform neighborhoods."

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. Staff writers Molly Born and Richard Webner contributed. First Published March 4, 2014 8:00 AM

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