There's been so much excitement -- OK, in one case a little too much excitement -- about citizens taking to the street all over the world. In Kiev, it's getting harder to remember those halcyon days of a few weeks ago, but in those early moments the Ukrainian protesters were motivated by a desire for a better economy, through trade ties with the West and later the freedom to protest their government. In Venezuela, we're seeing middle-class protesters with legitimate grievances against the elected leftist government, which is far too repressive against the press, free assembly and other basic freedoms.
But what about here in the U.S. of A.? It's far too early to talk about an American Spring -- not with several inches of snow still on the ground (damn you, vortex!). But the green shoots of protest are suddenly visible, more so than any moment since the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't Occupy movement in 2011. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the rise of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina and across the red South,and then yesterday nearly 400 folks were arrested in Washington, begging President Obama to make a stand on climate change and reject the Keystone XL pipeline.
But income inequality is the 800-pound gorilla of American political issues these days, and the city of Pittsburgh is ON IT! I was blown away by reports of the large turnout of UPMC workers -- that's the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the largest non-governmental employer by far in Pennsylvania's Second City -- took to the streets today to demand a living wage.
And they're still there tonight!
The Service Employees International Union has been trying to organize service workers at the hospital for at least two years. Joined by steel and mine workers on Monday, pro-union employees of UPMC marched to the hospital's headquarters at the U.S. Steel Tower with some specific demands: a hospital minimum wage of $15, the elimination of employees' health care debts to the hospital and recognition of a union.
"UPMC paints a picture of workers making $21 an hour, or $30 an hour," Chaney Lewis, a 31-year-old patient monitor technician and nine-year veteran of the hospital, told The Huffington Post. "I make $11.97 ... A lot of long-term employees with 10 or 15 years are not even making 15 bucks an hour. We get pennies for raises and our health care [cost] goes up on top of it."
Police shut down several downtown streets and granted the protesters a demonstration permit until noon, but hundreds were still gathered outside the hospital's offices as of Monday afternoon, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Last week, nine clergy members were arrested and cited for trespassing at a similar demonstration at the U.S. Steel Tower.
SEIU and its allies have cast the UPMC campaign as an effort to improve pay and standards on the bottom rungs of Pittsburgh's booming health care industry. In recent years, health care jobs have largely replaced manufacturing jobs as the core of the region's economy, with one in five private-sector workers now employed in an area hospital, according to the Los Angeles Times. Despite the many good-paying jobs at UPMC facilities, a number of the service workers -- cafeteria employees, for instance -- are earning wages that put them near or below the poverty line, according to SEIU.
This may be happening 300 miles away -- but the shock waves for Philadelphia are many. A few of them are political; some of the Democratic candidates -- notably Katie McGinty and Tom Wolf -- have been tweeting their support for the UPMC protesters today, while Rob McCord, the state treasurer, upped the ante in a debate Friday by calling for a statewide minimum wage of $10.70 an hour. The incumbent Gov. Corbett not only doesn't back a living wage but he has a history of close ties with UMPC, including attending the 2011 Winter Classic with their lobbyist, on their dime.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is that people are starting to question how UPMC can continue to pay food-stamp wages (to its workers, not to its executives of course) when it's taking advantage of its non-profit status to rob Pittsburgh coffers of an estimated $20 million. In other words, these are the same health-care industry pathologies you'd find right here in Philadelphia, where medicine is also the largest non-governmental employers, where too many workers can barely make ends meet because of low wages, and where non-profit outfits paying their execitives in the high six-figures are widening the hole in Philly's tax base.