A Union at UPMC Would Be a Good Thing for Pittsburgh

By Christoria Hughes

I’m a cafeteria worker at UPMC Presbyterian. I cover everything that’s done, mainly the front-end of the cafeteria, serving visitors and staff.

I’ve worked this job for twelve years. For the last six years I’ve worked the night shift. So I go in around 6 PM and set up late night patients’ menus and get things ready for late night staff that comes through. Night isn’t quite as busy as daylight but you still get a good amount of people and they still want their food just the same.

Over the years we’ve gone from a big staff to a smaller staff, so we have fewer people than there used to be to cover all the same needs. It can make it rougher for us. Especially when management comes in and wants us to do things a certain way, and we know it needs to get done different.

I’ve worked at Presby since I moved to Pittsburgh twelve years ago, when my granddaughter got into Pitt. They were the largest company and they were actually hiring, so I ended up here. At the time it seemed like a job that was convenient and close by, because we didn’t have a car.

Now of course she’s graduated and moved on, but I feel like I can’t make enough money to move out. I need to eat and keep a roof over our head and I have bills to pay. So if you’re struggling to even do that, you can’t really think about moving. I need to take care of my family first.

And I feel like I’m stuck at UPMC as well. Raises aren’t very much — maybe 1 or 2 percent — so at first it took me almost 3 years to get a full dollar raise. I finally made it to $15 an hour about a year ago. They said they’d move us to $15 five or six years ago, but that’s not how it worked out. And you still have people making less than that, because what UPMC says is now they’ll start people at $15, but for those who have been there and are gradually working their way up, you’ve basically lost all that time. And after a point there’s not much room for advancement.

You see things like this at big corporations. Jeffrey Romoff, the CEO — I call him Jeff — is making $9 million a year. At a non-profit. My daughter works at a hospital in New York now, and she tells me Jeff makes more than some people who run for-profit hospitals. How is that possible? Workers are struggling and you have a few executives making millions at a “non-profit.”

UPMC is all over the world now, and they have billions of dollars. They broadcast it. But what about the staff? A lot of us are struggling, and I feel trapped. I can’t advance too much, and to move even to a better neighborhood would cost twice as much as I’m paying now. It’s hard to get another job that starts out more than UPMC pays me after twelve years.

I got involved in organizing around 2012. I was talking to some co-workers and they said they were struggling, and UPMC wasn’t treating people fairly. I saw it too. People who had been working there for years were collecting welfare or rental assistance just to get by, and they weren’t living in good conditions.

Some workers were scared, because who wants to go up against a corporation that pretty much owns everything in Pittsburgh?

UPMC is still fighting the union, but I know a union at Presby would be a plus. Yeah, you’d pay union dues, but they would go to real guarantees for us. A union guarantees we have a say, it guarantees raises, it guarantees knowledge about your job, it guarantees security. It would be good for UPMC too, because you’d get workers who are sleeping at night, who know that they’re secure in their jobs and they can take care of their families. You’d get dedicated workers. But I guess they don’t see it like that. You got people up there making millions of dollars, so that shows what they care about.

This organizing is about more than UPMC workers too, it’s about the whole city. When schools close, when bus lines close, when neighborhoods deteriorate, that’s all related to UPMC — because they don’t pay taxes! If UPMC paid their fare share, this would be a different city.

A union at UPMC would be a good thing for Pittsburgh. Regardless of how much UPMC fights it, the people of Pittsburgh need to help ourselves. We need to build the city up for real people. That means bringing real union work back to Pittsburgh. It’s not about one person, it’s about all people.

We are UPMC hospital workers — these are our stories from the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.