This week, hundreds of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania members mobilized and made their way to Pittsburgh to stand with workers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) who are struggling to organize against a very aggressive corporate healthcare giant with billions in profits.
On March 3rd, we joined a group of thousands including UPMC workers, Pittsburgh residents, community allies and union brothers and sisters from across the country in the bitter cold to stand on the doorstep of UPMC headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh and say to the executives on the 62nd floor that we will stand together, we will not go away, and we demand justice. The crowd was so large that we actually took over the entire street, erecting a “healthcare village” and spending the day singing, dancing, chanting and hearing community and labor leaders and elected officials speak on the issue of UPMC’s poverty wages, unfair labor practices and lack of support to Pittsburgh as a whole.
The workers are fighting for three main issues:
- A minimum wage of $15 an hour for all UPMC workers;
- The right to organize and form a union without retaliation or harassment; and
- Forgiveness of medical debt for employees of the healthcare giant.
Among the SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania members from across the state who gathered in Pittsburgh on Monday and Tuesday were a group of 30 registered nurses from UPMC Altoona. Those nurses recently mounted their own fight against UPMC, holding a one-day strike to fight cuts that threatened patient safety and job quality at their hospital.
“[We] just want to get their attention and let them know they have to start treating their employees fairly and paying them properly,” Jill Brantner, an RN from UPMC Altoona told Pittsburgh CBS affiliate KDKA.
Many nurses staffed the healthcare village’s first aid tent, gave blood pressure and glucose tests and talked with the public about the Affordable Care Act.
The crowd on Grant Street was also treated to a surprise performance by local rising hip hop artist Jasiri X, who wrote a special song dedicated to UPMC workers called “People Over Profits.”
“When you’re making billions and billions and billions [of dollars], so many billions that you can just keep billions chillin’… but the very people that uphold your business, that built your business brick by brick with their hard work, blood, sweat and tears, you can’t even pay them a living wage?” the rapper said. “We’re asking for the ability to have the dignity and respect to be able to pay our bills, feed our family, buy a home, buy a car and lead a comfortable life.”
We held our ground in the street from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Monday, even taking over an entire intersection during rush hour traffic. We also sent delegations to other parts of the city to spread the word about the struggle to earn a living wage and get UPMC to pay its fair share to the city of Pittsburgh. On Monday evening, we convened in the nearby convention center to warm up, eat dinner and make plans to return bright and early Tuesday morning.
And return we did! Shortly after resuming our occupation of Grant Street Tuesday morning, the crowd felt a surge of courage and seized the plaza in front of the U.S. Steel Tower, home to UPMC corporate headquarters. The crowd marched right to the doors of the towering structure and a group of die-hard supporters sat down and refused to budge while the crowd behind them chanted, “Whose plaza? Our plaza!”
After hours of occupying the plaza, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto sent his Chief of Staff, Kevin Ackland, to our encampment with a message of support for the workers and a promise to act as a mediator in the ongoing struggle between the workers and UPMC executives. Mayor Peduto asked that we end our protest and instead join him at the table with UPMC to work through our differences.
UPMC workers Lou Berry and Christoria Hughes addressed the crowd, thanking us for our support and pledging to continue the fight to organize.
“I’d like to thank the mayor for his new initiative,” said Berry. “I’m hoping that we will all work together with the mayor’s office and it can help close the division between us and UPMC and help create better jobs for everybody in the city of Pittsburgh.”
“There’s a lot required of UPMC,” said Berry, “and what they need to realize [is] that to whom much is given, much is required.”
“I’d like to thank everyone who came out today and yesterday,” Hughes said. “It shows that we are united. That we care about our families, our communities and our city.”
“We are looking forward to working with UPMC… to make it the best hospital system it can be. We’re looking for them to take care of the people who take care of the people.”
See more images from the day on our Flickr page and see video clips of the crowd, speakers and more performances on our YouTube page. You can also like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to see updates and images from the whole two-day action. You can read and see a small fraction of the media coverage here: