KDKA Investigates: SEIU Healthcare’s influence over Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration

Ella Castle

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Who’s running the city of Pittsburgh: Mayor Ed Gainey or SEIU Healthcare? The health care union spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the mayor elected. A union vice president co-chaired his transition committee, and other former union officials now hold key positions in his administration. […]

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Who’s running the city of Pittsburgh: Mayor Ed Gainey or SEIU Healthcare?

The health care union spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the mayor elected. A union vice president co-chaired his transition committee, and other former union officials now hold key positions in his administration.

The question is, is SEIU Healthcare actually dictating policy, orchestrating a war with UPMC by demanding the hospital giant allow the union to represent its health care workers?

KDKA-TV obtained emails to try to shed some light.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald attended the groundbreaking ceremony of the new 17-story, $1.6 billion UPMC Presbyterian Hospital Tower, a project which will bring thousands of construction and permanent jobs to the city.

“All the folks who will come together to build this over the next couple of years, and the jobs that will be created here,” Fitzgerald added at the groundbreaking on June 14, 2022.

Then-gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro attended the event, but conspicuously absent was Gainey, who since becoming mayor, has declined to attend all UPMC events. This includes the placement of the final beam at the new UPMC Mercy Hospital, another indication of bad blood between the city and the region’s largest employer.

“Today, I am signing an executive order directing my law and finance department to conduct a review of properties owned by organizations claiming tax exemption based on their charitable status,” Gainey said at a press conference on Jan. 24, 2023.

After taking office, Mayor Gainey had promised to meet with UPMC and the three other major non-profits — Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University and Allegheny Health Network — to negotiate PILOTS (payments to the city in lieu of taxes), but instead, he’s now challenging the tax-exempt status of their individual properties.

“We are here to protect the taxpayer and make sure that everybody pays their fair share,” said Mayor Gainey.

Multiple sources tell KDKA-TV talks between the city of Pittsburgh and UPMC broke down, not over money, but over Mayor Gainey’s demand that UPMC allow SEIU Healthcare to represent its health care workers, leaving a $40 million commitment from UPMC on the table.

KDKA-TV asked Lisa Frank, the chief operating and administrative officer for the city of Pittsburgh, if the city demanded that UPMC allow the union at Presbyterian Hospital and throughout its system as part of these negotiations.

“The mayor, I think you know, has always been on the side of workers,” Frank said in response. 

SEIU Healthcare has tried unsuccessfully to unionize those workers for more than a decade and two years ago became the primary backer of Mayor Gainey’s election campaign. According to campaign finance filings, it spent more than $350,000 to elect Gainey, more than all other contributors combined.

In turn, Gainey appointed SEIU vice president and political director Silas Russel to co-chair his transition committee and named others to key spots in his administration — former SEIU Healthcare communications director Maria Montaño is his press secretary and the union’s former vice president Lisa Frank is now the city’s chief operating and administrative officer.

“The union’s job is the union’s job. The mayor’s job is the mayor’s job,” said Frank when asked if the mayor is doing the union’s bidding.

While Frank was evasive, the mayor’s press secretary issued this statement denying the mayor demanded an SEIU union at his meeting with UPMC CEO Leslie Davis in June of 2022:

“The mayor has long been a supporter of the right of working people to come together for aa union and a voice at work … In a meeting with UPMC, he asked them to sit down and listen to their workers, however, he has not made any demands.”

The results of a KDKA Investigates Right to Know Request tell a different story. In the days before the meeting, there is a flurry of emails between local SEIU Healthcare head Russell and administration higher-ups preparing the mayor’s talking points. They make explicit demands for a union with Russell actually dictating many of those points.

“You (Mayor Gainey) want to be able to have a partnership with UPMC, to collaborate with them on major development and social initiatives in the city … Before that is possible however, you (Davis) need to commit to: A fair election arrangement with SEIU to bring an end to the long and contentious dispute between UPMC and its frontline workers.”  

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After reviewing the first draft, Russell offers additional points such as: “You also believe that the workforce crisis in healthcare is so pressing we cannot afford to see continued conflict and disruption.” Which are added verbatim to the final preparation notes then sent to the mayor.

Sources say UPMC rejected the demand, telling the mayor they are willing to discuss payments lieu of taxes but not their internal labor relations.

The two sides have not met since. UPMC declined comment, but in a statement, Russell defended SEIU Healthcare’s influence saying, “Every health care worker should have the ability to form a union … we think every elected official should be working to hold UPMC accountable and ensure hospital workers have a voice at work.”

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