They Can Do What They Want Because It’s Not a Union Place

by James DeShields

James DeShields, UPMC Presbyterian

I’m what they call “the spider.” I run back and forth in the kitchen and supply the food to the personnel who make the trays before they’re sent out to the patients. We do 270 trays a night on average. Meals aren’t always made on the spot, they’re usually done in advance. It’s not the most efficient way of doing the tray line, but it’s how we do it. How we do things here, you wonder how the place survives.

This is my seventh year working for UPMC Presbyterian. I’m 66, a retired chemical worker, and I did that for 33 years.

I work almost every day. I’m full time flex, so I don’t do 40 hours, I do 36–38 hours depending on what they need, but we can’t go from one week to the next without some kind of scheduling issue.

I had heard that UPMC is the largest employer in the state and that’s absolutely true, but that’s because they don’t particularly hire full time people, they hire part time people, casuals, lots of students, and the hiring is continuous. They can never get out of the rut of hiring and training over and over.

The first year I sat back and evaluated the situation to see why they had such high turnover. Why couldn’t they keep people more than a year before they’d leave? And what was the company’s aversion to having a union? When I started talking to SEIU, I found out they’d stop us at every turn.

We weren’t allowed to wear union paraphernalia. Any union talk is frowned upon to the max, and they will call you in about that. It’s amazing how they treat the organizers who are really just trying to bring something to the workers so they at least have some rights. They’d have their police force follow us, all the time, and all we’re trying to do is organize the place so there’s better representation when we talk with the company.

And we need a voice here. A few weeks ago I went to the security office and told them I was being harassed by a couple of officers to show my i.d. that I’d already shown twice to get into the building. They said the officer was just doing his job. No he’s not. I was being checked. I told them I felt like I was being picked on because they don’t do that with everybody. I went back to the entrance and saw people walking through and never getting asked for i.d. The only people they checked were the black employees. I was just so angry.

But I try not to be disruptive. I’m never going to sit there and argue with them. They can do what they want because it’s not a union place. They have more rights than us. They write all the rules, so it’s not like you have any say in anything that’s going on.

I wanted to get involved to let other workers at the hospital know, especially the younger people coming in, that it’s not like this everywhere else. I felt like I had such a good experience with union and management working together at other companies, but it’s not like that here.

People come up to me but if I’m working, I can’t talk to you about the union. If you’re working, you’re not supposed to talk to me about the union. I have to catch people in the locker room when we’re both on break. But every few days there are new people working, and I end up giving the same initial talk to different people all the time because they come and go so fast. It’s frustrating. Part-timers only get one break so you have to speak quickly to get all the information to them. We do have new people that are looking to get involved in the union, but we’ve also lost so many good people that would be perfect for the union representation at this place, but they’re just kicked in the teeth everyday. They just want you to give give give give, and what you get back is two slices of pizza and some brownies. I’m sorry but that doesn’t pay any bills.

This is my second month back to work after being in the hospital for six months, so I really have no idea who these people are asking me questions. I tell them we can’t talk now! We have to wait for break! I don’t want to make the matter worse than what it is. So I go by the rules that are written out. It’s not worth losing your job. That’s what frustrates a lot of the young people that say they’ll get a different job, and that’s just what they do. But you’re never going to solve the problem that way.

UPMC is building all these new buildings, adding new wings, and the politicians are signing off on all this. Until somebody steps up and takes away UPMC’s not-for-profit status the company won’t believe that this is serious. You cannot take all the profit.

I like my job as the spider because it gives me an opportunity to see all the new people coming in, and I want to be able to talk to them about the union. I believe this can all be worked out, and it doesn’t have to be confrontational if management would actually listen to us. I guess UPMC looks at me and says eventually he’ll get tired, retire and leave. But I’m not going anywhere.

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