UPMC’s pledge to start kicking up its entry-level pay to $15-an-hour is very good news and its economic and social impact should be felt for years, but it could be we haven’t seen anything yet.
Dozens of service and technical workers from every one of the health care giant’s Pittsburgh hospitals have said they will walk off the job this morning, calling for “an end to UPMC’s practices of harassing, surveilling, discriminating against and illegally disciplining workers who want to form their union.’’
These are, as the football announcers say, just a couple of teams that don’t like each other. But just how much is riding on workers gettting paid enough to live in modest comfort by a conglomerate that has dozens of adminstrators making a million bucks a year?
Some see it as nothing less than restoring America’s middle class.
A UPMC spokesman said last week it’s long been on the leading edge of wages and benefits and this is “just the most recent example of measures ... to recognize the high performance our employees.’’ But union organizers who have sought exactly this $15 level don’t think it’s a coincidence UPMC landed on that number — just a couple of years after saying it was impossible.
Paul Wood, the hospital chain’s vice president and chief communications officer, asked this about labor leaders in an email last week:
“Doesn’t it seem a bit hypocritical that they’re trying to take credit for the raise given to workers they don’t represent and yet fail to demand it (or, achieve it) for workers they do represent?”
Neal Bisno, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, calls the ongoing activism among hospital workers “the 21st-century version of what happened among steelworkers and other manufacturing workers in the 1930s and ’40s.’’
UPMC, the largest employer in the city, “has totally reversed itself,’’ Mr. Bisno said, and “everyone in Pittsburgh knows why.’’
It’s true the union doesn’t yet represent UPMC employees as it does workers at the hospital’s chain’s archrival, Allegheny Health Systems. But “workers across UPMC know exactly why they just got such a commitment, and they’re not done yet,’’ he said. “They’re more committed than ever to winning the union.’’
If it sounds as if this is just a group of people unwilling to take yes for answer, understand that three years ago, UPMC settled 80 charges of unfair labor practices with the union. A couple of months later, the hospital chain was charged again, and a National Labor Relations Board judge decided in 2014 that UPMC violated federal labor law when it fired four employees involved in unionizing activities. It ordered them reinstated.
This one-day strike is about the right to form a union without intimidation.
The focus has been on workers at the low end of the pay scale, but UPMC says it was already at the top of the range with a minimum entry-level wage of $11.73 an hour. These pay increases that begin in January will be felt among all its 10,000 workers. About four of every five live and work in Allegheny County.
We’re all going to see that money because they’re all going to spend it here.
“UPMC’s action will create more economy-boosting jobs in Southwest Pennsylvania,’’ Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center, said. “No doubt about it.’’
Mr. Herzenberg, whose think tank is funded largely by foundations but also receives union donations, says decades of productivity growth in this country did not bring a complementary increase in workers’ wages. That leaves a good bit of room to increase pay without triggering inflation, he said.
He likes to point out that organizing the service industry makes sense because its jobs aren’t easily moved. A hospital can’t have its bedpans cleaned in Tijuana and a fast-food joint can’t get its burgers flipped in Beijing.
Mr. Bisno sees it as no accident that, in the span of five days, New York and California, which together take in nearly a fifth of the U.S. population, each announced plans to raise the statewide minimum wage to $15; the largest private employer in Pennsylvania, UPMC, came to the same number; and nearly 5,000 nursing home workers in 42 facilities across the state also won agreements with a path to $15.
“Just imagine what workers can achieve when they have full collective bargaining,’’ Mr. Bisno said.
We don’t have to imagine. This city was built that way.
Brian O’Neill: email@example.com or 412-263-1947.