Pittsburgh’s middle class was built by men and women working in steel mills. Steel workers built our skyline and our economy. They took jobs that were low-paying, dangerous positions and stood together to form unions that created solid, middle-class jobs. Their grueling work and the strong unions they built set Pittsburgh’s foundation as a city whose heart is rooted in working-class values.
My first job was in a steel mill. It was hard, back-breaking work, but because I was in a union, I earned a living wage with affordable benefits and had a voice at work.
In today’s New Pittsburgh, many workers do not have this opportunity. Our working-class steel town has transitioned to an “eds and meds” and high-tech economy, with a small number of well-paying jobs at the top and a vast service sector of poverty-wage jobs at the bottom. The janitors, cooks, security guards and hospital workers needed to keep our city running barely earn enough to support themselves, let alone to raise a family. The rising gap between the very few at the top and the rest of us is why many of us fear that our children will be less well off than we are and that we fear for the future of our city.
But this is Pittsburgh, and we won’t allow disregard for our families and our communities to continue. Workers here have fully embraced the Fight for 15 and a Union, which is a global movement to turn poverty-wage service sector jobs into family-sustaining ones.
Standing together with community, faith, environmental and labor supporters, we have called on UPMC to pay $15 an hour and allow its workers a fair chance to form a union. We have marched through Oakland and protested at the Steel Tower; some of us were even arrested when UPMC’s CEO refused to meet with us to talk about ending its disrespect of the workers, patients and community members who have built the company’s profits. After nearly four years of struggle, last week we achieved a historic victory: UPMC announced that it is raising wages for all workers to $15 an hour.
Hospital workers — a key part of the backbone of our city’s economy — are at the center of rebuilding our middle class and rebuilding respect for working-class people in our city. Just like the workers of the steel mills, hospital workers are standing together to advocate for and create family-sustaining jobs.
We celebrate UPMC workers for pushing UPMC to raise the starting wage to $15 an hour. But while UPMC’s announcement that it will pay workers $15 an hour by 2021 is a big win, it is only the first step the health care giant needs to take to become a true part of the Pittsburgh community.
Now, we call on UPMC to recognize our other demand and allow workers to form a union. We want workers to have the right to form a union without the relentless and illegal intimidation from UPMC executives and managers. Hospital workers need a free and fair process to form their union. They should be able to have a voice in how to make UPMC a better place to work.
What these UPMC executives clearly don’t understand is what we all know so well — that Pittsburgh is a working-class city. When the steel mill executives told our parents and grandparents that those jobs could pay only poverty wages, they stood together, formed unions and created a middle class. When UPMC executives said two years ago that a $15 an hour wage “is not realistic,” workers and community members stood up to demand family-sustaining jobs from the biggest employer in the region. And we won.
Every time we win, the movement we are building here in Pittsburgh to create family-sustaining jobs, invest in our neighborhoods and create economic equality grows stronger. UPMC workers are joining thousands of other workers in this struggle. Last year alone, more than 5,000 workers — including security guards, food service workers, adjunct professors and other hospital workers — formed a union for the first time. Change is possible when we stand together.
Although a $15-an-hour wage for UPMC is an amazing victory for our city, we still need UPMC to respect Pittsburghers. We will not stop fighting until hospital workers and all workers in our city earn a living wage and can form a union without intimidation or interference. That is the only way to preserve our working-class roots and achieve a just, livable Pittsburgh for all.
Barney Oursler is executive director of Pittsburgh United.