A push for unionization and higher wages for service workers at UPMC that has lasted more than two years spilled into Downtown streets Monday, snarling traffic during morning and afternoon commutes during demonstrations that are scheduled to continue today.
As many as 1,000 demonstrators, organized by UPMC workers seeking to join the Service Employees International Union, rallied for much of the workday outside UPMC's headquarters in the U.S. Steel Tower on Grant Street and were funneled down to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center late in the afternoon after the protest could no longer be contained to the sidewalks, said Sonya Toler, city public safety spokeswoman.
"That was something we had to do for crowd control," Ms. Toler said. "They had spilled into the street and stopped traffic."
Hundreds protest UPMC over wages for service employees
Hundreds gathered Downtown today to protest what they believe are low wages paid to some of the health system's service employees. Pittsburgh police shut down several Downtown streets during the rally. (Video by Nate Guidry; 3/3/2014)
Maria Montano, a spokeswoman for Service Employees International Health Care Pennsylvania, said Monday night that plans for today were still being finalized but that the demonstrations would resume just after 8 a.m. at the U.S. Steel Tower.
Ms. Toler said police will aim to keep Grant Street open today, adding that protesters pledged to stay on city sidewalks and could be cited for violating the agreement.
"We hope they stick to what they said they were going to do," Ms. Toler said Monday evening. "We do not expect streets to be blocked at all tomorrow."
Union officials said the crowd numbered about 1,000, and Ms. Toler said city estimates placed the number as high as 1,200 at its largest.
Ms. Toler said the protest's organizers, Service Employees International Union, obtained a special events permit and met with police last week to discuss the march and rally, though the permit allowed them to set up only on the sidewalk.
However, police allowed the event to move into the curbside lane of Grant Street to make room for a stage, shutting it down at around 7 a.m. About an hour later, Ms. Toler said, police decided to shut down the other lane because marchers were crossing into both.
"We were really trying to be accommodating as much as we could without making it inconvenient for others," she said.
Grant Street was reopened in the afternoon, but protesters were back into the street shortly before 5 p.m. at the intersection with Sixth Avenue. They then marched down Grant and Liberty Avenue to the convention Center, jamming several intersections at the start of rush hour.
Mayor Bill Peduto's office said 43 police officers and two squad cars from each of the city's six zones were dispatched Downtown to direct traffic and ensure safety. City code says the first $750 of costs associated with any special event is to be covered by the city and event organizers are to pay the rest. For "First Amendment events," bills and fees can be waived if the organizers show proof of "indigency."
"More than 1,000 people exercised their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble, and, by cooperating with police, no arrests have been reported," Mr. Peduto said in a statement. "My office has kept lines of communication open with protest organizers and business groups to address any concerns."
The demonstration was part of an ongoing battle for higher wages for UPMC blue-collar workers, including cooks and custodial staff, unionization, and the elimination of UPMC medical debt for its employees.
In union news releases, UPMC workers say their pay amounts to "poverty wages."
Christoria Hughes, identified by the union as a six-year UPMC employee who relies on subsidized housing and food banks to support her grandchildren, said in a statement that the protest wasn't intended to "disrupt anyone's commute."
"We're out here because we can't put food on our tables even though we work for UPMC," she said.
Joining in the demonstration were teachers, grocery workers, leaders and congregants from the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, members of Pittsburgh City Council and other local politicians, Action United and the University of Pittsburgh's Students in Solidarity with UPMC Workers, who organized a small march of their own in Oakland. Some demonstrators were bused in from across the state and elsewhere.
"Their fight is our fight," said Marc Mancini of South Park, a 27-year-old union representative with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23. "This is a fight for all service workers in the city of Pittsburgh."
UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said the hospital giant had no plans to raise wages or otherwise respond to the demands.
"We already lead the market in service-worker wages," Mr. Wood said.
The hospital system said in a statement that its starting wage of $11 per hour is $1.52 more than the local market average and that the average worker wage at UPMC is $12.81 per hour, about $26,644 annually.
UPMC also says it offers "superior health benefits," retirement plans with matching contributions, paid time off and tuition reimbursement.
"UPMC's compensation package far exceeds what other industries offer, and we continue to provide a robust and competitive employee benefits package that many service workers do not enjoy elsewhere," the statement says.
The SEIU, Mr. Wood added, has been trying to organize workers at UPMC for more than two years and has yet to call for a vote.
"They know they will not win that vote. ... They've failed," Mr. Wood said. He added that the union cannot guarantee workers higher wages or better benefits.
"The only thing the SEIU can guarantee them is the privilege of paying monthly dues," Mr. Wood said.
Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh United -- a coalition of 13 environmental, union, community and faith organizations that has campaigned for green infrastructure components -- said Pittsburgh "wants UPMC to be a better neighbor."
"If UPMC is really concerned about services in the city," he said in a statement, "it should do its part and pay taxes on the billions of dollars of property it owns."
The demonstration followed a UPMC protest last week that resulted in nine arrests and a one-day nurses' strike at UPMC Altoona last month organized by SEIU Healthcare PA over contract negotiations.
And in October, the National Labor Relations Board filed charges alleging that UPMC illegally fired four workers for union activity and threatened, interrogated and intimidated employees attempting to unionize, including disciplining workers for testifying before the NLRB and implying that the workers would receive poor work evaluations.
UPMC has denied that any labor laws were broken and says NLRB proceedings are ongoing.
Robert Zullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909. Moriah Balingit: email@example.com or 412-263-2533 Molly Born, Clarece Polke and Richard Webner contributed. First Published March 3, 2014 8:00 AM