Nurses march at UPMC HQ

PITTSBURGH – The marchers were a half-hour late, but before they got to the corner, you could hear them.

It was like the roar before you get to a stadium when you’ve missed the first quarter.

And when the marchers – nurses from Altoona and their supporters from there and Pittsburgh – turned onto Grant Street and started down the block in front of the UPMC tower Thursday, it galvanized the mid-city afternoon.

On Wednesday, the nurses’ local president, Paula Stellabotte, said they wanted to go to Pittsburgh to address “the boss,” which for them now as employees of UPMC Altoona, works in the tower.

“The belly of the beast,” their state SEIU Healthcare PA union President Neal Bisno called the building.

And they addressed the boss, in a chant to UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff: “Romoff, get off it; you’re not a nonprofit!”

Thursday’s trip was the cap on a week that included a 24-hour strike and two days of picketing and a community rally in Altoona to protest management’s walking away from contract talks in which issues of staffing, pension and health care remain unresolved.

There’s no evidence that Romoff heard them, presumably from high in the 50-plus story tower.

They got the attention of the tower inhabitants, however – as security forces were on alert in the lobby in anticipation of the march, then locked the lobby doors when marchers appeared, moving outside to guard the edge of the elevated entrance plaza, to ensure the marchers remained on the sidewalk.

They reopened the doors when the marchers left, after about 20 minutes.

But it was a rousing 20 minutes, with an SEIU vice president leading the chants with a bullhorn, nurses carrying signs, like “Nurses united for quality care,” SEIU marshals keeping the marchers moving, in a serpentine loop and periodic honks from motorists.

There was a trace of small-town self-consciousness:

“We may be from little Altoona,” said nurse Jamie Claycomb, who was master of ceremonies for Wednesday’s rally. “But we will stay together.”

There was also a bit of the kind of defiance that comes from a belief that one is undervalued, from someone who is not a nurse.

Pastor Paul Johnson, a patient for two successful kidney transplants at UPMC, asked the demonstrators, “When you push that button, who comes?”

The nurses plan to confer today to prepare for the resumption of contract negotiations next week.

UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps declined to comment on the Romoff chant or the idea that UPMC is trying to send a message to its mostly nonunion employees at large by taking a tough stance in Altoona.

She also didn’t say the organization is feeling beleagured lately, despite her having attended a hearing on unfair labor charges before the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday, before the marchers arrived.

But she did say that UPMC pays wages that are market-competitive and “high-growth.”

“We have offered annual increases as well as excellent benefits to help transition the nurses from their current program to ours,” she said.

Moreover, the retirement package UPMC is offering is “35 percent richer than what [the Altoona hospital has] been able to offer their newly hired nurse for nearly six years,” she said.

The organization has a long history of good relations with both union and nonunion workers, she said.

“We feel that we have made a very generous offer,” she stated.

The nurses came to Pittsburgh in two busloads, then spent much of the morning at a United Steelworkers Union labor hall getting fired up, before marching the mile or so to the UPMC tower.

At the demonstration, Johnson told the nurses, “You’re on the front lines.”

They need to keep fighting until the executives on the top floors “push the button” to compromise, he said.