By Joe Kennedy

I’m a grill cook in the cafeteria at UPMC Presbyterian. There are four basic jobs at the cafeteria: cook, serve, stock, and clean. I mostly cook and serve, and sometimes stock. I started out in Montefiore, but moved over to Presby after a few months and I’ve been here for about 12 years.

I’m just about done with a 12 month final written warning for handing out a union flier to an employee who was on the clock. Before that I had a previous warning for the same thing. So it’s about time I can speak out again.

The cafeteria is open 22 hours a day, from 4:30 AM to 2:00 AM. Right now I work four different shifts. Some days I open at 4:30, cracking eggs, making omelets and breakfast before dawn, other days I work later morning, lunch, or early dinner shifts. Monday I start work at 4:30 AM after working until 7:00 PM on Sunday. The youngsters call that kind of swing shifting “clopening.” If I’m lucky I get home at 7:30 on Sunday, and the first thing I have to do is bag all my clothes and hit the showers. We order in those days.

It can wear you out, but I’ve been doing it for awhile. It’s hard on the family life though.

I’ve been at this job for 12 years, and the only two people with more seniority than me have been there for 33 and 35 years. Most people only stay a few. Hospital jobs used to be the “good jobs,” because somebody needs to do these jobs no matter what, so it’s stable. And I mean just getting a job with benefits, that’s pretty golden these days.

With the union it would be a great job. We’d have a say in our jobs, in our insurance, everything. Right now we get out insurance from the company store.

I got involved in union organizing back in 2012. There is no way I can go to the bosses and talk about my pay and my benefits. But if we get together with the union we can do a lot of things. There is nothing more American than democracy in the workplace. That’s basic stuff right there.

I’ve learned a lot organizing with the union. I’m especially grateful that it’s gotten me more politically active as well. It’s shown me that we need to attack the problem with strong allies, community organizations, religious organizations, local politicians, media, everything. Trying to organize right now is really tough, but we’re doing it.

Union organizing is hard in a culture of instant gratification. I knew it would take time, but I didn’t think it would be this long. But UPMC brought in consultants to help them fight the union, so it’s dragging it out. I mean I can’t prove it — there is no smoking gun — but we can recognize the language of consultants on their fliers and in their language. It’s a travesty that a public charity is going to dump money to a union-busting law firm. Maybe someone can force them to open up their books, but so far the powers that be have decided not to fight that battle. But I know what I see.

If UPMC wants to be a public charity they need to act like it. And they need to stop acting like a typical corporate entity, siphoning all the money from the workers up to the management. Because there is no way the insurance they’re running is a charity. They charge the workers more for these policies than some other people, and they could never have even started their insurance without so many employees forced to use it. It’s a company store model. They aren’t interested in competition, they’re interested in buying up all the hospitals and being the insurance and medical conglomerate.

UPMC needs to take care of their employees and take care of the city. If they aren’t paying taxes they should be giving back in other ways, taking care of their communities. There is a lot they could be doing. Inequality is out of control. The infant mortality rate among Black women in this city is appalling.

If UPMC actually paid their workers a life sustaining wage that you could actually get by on without having to barely scrape by or work a second job, it would do a whole lot to lessen all kinds of wage gaps and healthcare gaps and everything. People wouldn’t have to move out of their neighborhoods because they can’t afford rent, and then pull their kids out of one school for another and have to commute 45 minutes to an hour every day.

They harass people for organizing because they fear losing power to the union. They have all these social media policies for what you can and can’t say about UPMC on Facebook or Twitter. They harassed some people so much they left the job. I don’t leave my locker unlocked anymore because of some of the things I’ve heard about them doing. Romoff said a union would come into UPMC over his dead body. When the higher ups have that attitude, they bring that to HR and it filters down.

Honestly, all I really have to say to that is: UPMC, just don’t be a jagoff.

I’m not bad-mouthing UPMC either, I’m just saying they’re not treating their workers right. The union makes a lot of sense to me and I’m sticking to it. I’ve been written up and warned multiple times just for passing out union leaflets, and I know that means I have a target on my back. I’ve taken an arrest for this, I’ve marched, I’ve circulated petitions, gotten the word out any way I can. I believe in the cause and I’m going to tell my story and do my part.

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