Last month, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) settled a massive complaint issued by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that the hospital chain routinely violated workers’ rights. This settlement marks a crucial victory for UPMC workers who have been trying to join together in a union to bargain for fair pay and working conditions—and a voice on the job.
UPMC responded to the workers’ efforts by attacking workers using unfair and questionable tactics. The NLRB charged UPMC with engaging in a series of unlawful activity, including firing and disciplining workers for taking part in union activity; telling workers they could not talk to their co-workers about the union in the hospital and even in public areas off the clock; telling workers they could not talk about the union in their own homes; unlawful surveillance and intimidation of workers; and discriminatory enforcement of company policies against workers who supported the union.
Unfortunately, we have come to expect many of these tactics from large corporations, but not from a public charity, whose mission is to “serve our community.”
UPMC’s answer to the Labor Board’s complaint tried to exploit legal loopholes and technicalities to avoid being held accountable for its attempts to silence workers. Most outrageously, UPMC argued that the workers could not bring a claim against it, because it has no employees. UPMC has long advertised itself as the state’s largest employer, with over 55,000 employees, so its claims that UPMC is in fact a holding company with no operations and no employees were rightfully met with skepticism—and some incredulous laughs.
Again, we’ve come to expect these tactics from large corporations who hire teams of lawyers to find loopholes to evade their legal responsibilities, but not a public charity that receives hundreds of millions of dollars in tax savings from the region due to its charitable status.
Instead of dragging out the legal process at the expense of its reputation, UPMC has agreed to reinstate workers that were fired and suspended, restore their seniority status, give them 80 percent of their backpay, and clear their records. UPMC will rescind a number of policies that restricted workers’ right to stick together with their coworkers for fairness on the job. Managers will finally receive training on the rights of employees, and UPMC will post notices on bulletin boards throughout the hospitals stating that it will not violate the rights of employees.
That may sound like a lot of legalese, but the impact of this victory on UPMC workers and their families is very real. At the meeting announcing the settlement, one of the fired workers UPMC has agreed to reinstate, Frank Lavelle, spoke of the importance of what the workers at UPMC were doing. Lavelle, who has been with UPMC for 17 years before being fired, said that he grew up watching people fight for their civil rights and win against all odds. Now, with his children beside him at the meeting, he explained how important it was for them to see their father stand up for his rights and those of his co-workers, and win. Other workers chimed in, explaining that their struggle is about respect and dignity.
This victory is one step forward in what is certain to be an ongoing struggle for UPMC workers. However, it was significant because it showed that UPMC workers will stick together in the face of attacks, and that even the largest employer in the state has to listen to its workers if they speak with one voice.
And as UPMC faces increasing scrutiny for failing to live up to its charitable mission, that’s a lesson all of us in Pittsburgh would do well to learn.