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Hundreds of Pittsburgh-area nurses protest poor working conditions, threaten to strike

The nurses have been working at UPMC McKeesport without a contract since April.

Nurses rally in front of UPMC McKeesport on Tuesday, May 22. (Credit: Screenshot, KDKA)
Nurses rally in front of UPMC McKeesport on Tuesday, May 22. (Credit: Screenshot, KDKA)

Hundreds of nurses rallied in the Pittsburgh area Tuesday, calling on their employer, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) of McKeesport, to recognize their union rights and negotiate a contract that would include more staff and better quality jobs.

Nearly 170 nurses have been working at the hospital without a contract since April, local CBS affiliate KDKA reported.

“We want some reasonable raises, we want some of the things that the rest of the nurses in the system have,” Lyn Musser, acting union president and staff nurse, told the outlet, referring to UPMC’s dozens of other hospital locations throughout the state.

In a statement to KDKA, UPMC said, “We are continuing to bargain in good faith and have a negotiation date set for later this month” on May 29.

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But many hospital workers have been frustrated with UPMC’s seeming unwillingness to prioritize the issue, and 99 percent of nurses have vowed to go on strike if the need arises.

UPMC is Pennsylvania’s largest non-governmental employer, a behemoth of nearly 80,000 employees. Over the past several years, the healthcare giant has bought and built dozens of hospitals and dominated the local insurance market. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last spring, since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, hospital administrators have jumped at the chance to consolidate. “Squeezed by lower reimbursement, rising costs for new technology and difficulty recruiting doctors is driving an increasing number of small hospitals into the arms of bigger systems,” the news outlet noted.

While there are benefits to such consolidation, including community investment and expanded medical services, there are also major downsides. Today, there are only two insurers in the Pittsburgh marketplace, one being UPMC’s own plan. In many of Pittsburgh’s surrounding counties, the UPMC health plan has monopolized the market as the sole insurer.

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Hospital workers seem to be experiencing the worst effects of UPMC’s expansion. In 2015, the National Labor Relations Board in Pittsburgh filed a complaint against the healthcare conglomerate, highlight 13 violations of workers’ rights, including restricting efforts to unionize and grilling employees about their opinions of unionization.

In January of this year, about a third of the nurses filed a petition to decertify from SEIU Healthcare PA, which represents hospital workers who have formed or are trying to form a union, but ultimately, the membership voted to stay in the union, putting the blame on UPMC for its efforts to “divert us from pushing for quality patient care, better staffing and a strong hospital.”

“UPMC’s tactics are about enabling wealthy executives to spend our taxpayer dollars to silence us,” said UPMC McKeesport nurse Kay Laycak in a press release, according to the Post-Gazette.

More than 30 UPMC executives and physicians make at least $1 million a year, with 10 making at least $2 million. President and CEO Jeffrey Romoff earns more than $6 million every year.