03/03/2014 09:01 am ET Updated May 03, 2014

A City Unites to Demand Better From Its Largest Employer

Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- in Pittsburgh knows the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). The health system is the city's and the commonwealth's largest private employer, its hospitals anchor neighborhoods and its headquarters in the former U.S. Steel building helps define the city's skyline.

Lately, people have gotten to know another, darker side of UPMC: avoiding taxes despite record revenue while paying some workers so poorly that there are food pantries in the hospitals for them. One of UPMC's accounting tricks truly doesn't pass the laugh test: in order to avoid certain obligations, it told a court that it actually has no employees.

The Pittsburgh City Council has taken notice, challenging UPMC's nonprofit status. Federal officials are asking questions, too. UPMC is facing dozens of unfair labor practice allegations at a trial that wraps up this week. Now, today, Pittsburghers by the hundreds are saying enough is enough.

Workers, community leaders, faith leaders, allies and concerned citizens are describing the demonstrations in Pittsburgh today and tomorrow as "Days of Change." They're standing up to say that UPMC should pay every health care worker no less than $15 an hour, erase the medical debt its own employees incur because of coverage they cannot afford and allow workers to hold a free and fair union election without interference. They're fighting for better jobs and a better future for UPMC workers. I applaud their tenacity, and I urge you to follow what they're doing on Twitter.

One thing about Pittsburghers is that they know what good jobs look like. Jobs in the steel industry were (and still are) dangerous, and they were low-paying at first, until workers joined together, organized and fought for fair pay and safer working conditions. Steelworkers and their decent wages built the area's middle class.

So why aren't UPMC's size and success -- as a health care institution that depends upon its 60,000 employees -- benefiting the people of Pittsburgh and beyond? A typical UPMC worker earns between 8 and 30 percent less than what is needed to achieve economic security in the region, let alone join the middle class. At the same time, UPMC made $1.3 billion in profits in the last three years, has $4 billion in reserves and pays its 28 top executives $48.8 million a year.

Like the big steel companies in the 20th century, UPMC has emerged as the largest local employer, provider and landowner. And like the steelworkers and civic stakeholders of the 1950s, today's western Pennsylvanians are realizing that they must be the ones to demand accountability from the anchor of their 21st-century economy, UPMC.

We can learn a lot from what they're doing in Pittsburgh. UPMC is hardly alone -- across the country, big corporations are raking in record profits and paying poverty wages. All the while, regular, hard-working Americans are falling further and further behind. But when they join together, people have the power to demand better. When workers win better pay, when they can educate their kids and when they can be secure in retirement, it drives a successful economy.

Ultimately, that's why fast-food workers and Walmart workers have mobilized to fight for better wages. It's why adjunct professors are successfully banding together at some of the country's largest universities. And it's why airport workers are winning battles against low-pay contractors, from New York City to Washington state.

When people join up and assert our power over our economy, big things can happen -- even when the fight is being waged against the biggest of employers.