Tuesday, April 17, 2012

March, Rally on UPMC highlights "Tax Dodging"

Around 130 protesters from labor, social activist and community organizations rallied in front of the US Steel Tower yesterday to protest UPMC's ability as a legal non-profit to shield its 9-figure annual profits from state, municipal and school district taxation.

The protest was organized by Pittsburgh United, a local political coalition affiliated with the national Partnership for Working Families.

"Hey Romoff! Get off it! You're not a non-profit!" the crowd chanted, waving signs decrying cuts to public education, transportation and infrastructure investment. Protesters, many clad in various union t-shirts, emphasized the health care giant's $471.7 million annual profit last year and what it calculated to be CEO Jeffery Romoff's $1,900 hourly wage.

"The problem isn't workers making too much money," said Barney Oursler, executive director of the protest organization, speaking both of UPMC and of budget woes in government. "[UPMC] admitted they're a for-profit" and therefore ought to be contributing to "the community".

The event proceeded from the Wood Street subway station peacefully up Strawberry Way, a service ally terminating directly in front of the US Steel Tower now emblazoned with UPMC's logo. A handful of bicycle police and police cruisers were on hand, stopping traffic briefly on Grant Street so protesters could cross. On the steps at Steel Plaza the rally lasted about an hour, allowing workers access to and from that building.

The scene was redolent of innumerable prior protests organized by the labor-led coalition: colorful hand-drawn signs and balloons, turns taken on a bullhorn leading chants and giving short speeches, a small press conference, an attempt to enter a targeted building to transact business on some pretense (this time an attempt submit a $204 million "tax bill" to UPMC was rebuffed) and a promise to return.

"Repetition is good," emphasized Rev. David Thornton of of Grace Memorial Baptist Church and Pittsburgh Interfaith Action Network, who seemed frequently to address unspoken anxieties related to fatigue or frustration. "It's good to repeat truth to power." Later he led the final chant, "UPMC, we'll be right back!"

Most Downtown onlookers seemed bemused by the proceedings.

"I think people have a real misunderstanding of what a not-for-profit is," said Mike Fiffik, a Downtown attorney. "Whether or not they are meeting that criterion is up for the IRS to determine." He allowed that not having to pay real estate, income and investment taxes is "a big help to them," a fact which is bound to result in more significant give-backs to the community in order to keep it so.

One UPMC employee speaking on condition of anonymity emphasized not just the number of jobs provided in health care, but the medical and technological research taking place in various programs as reasons to continue supporting it through the tax code.

"I'm a liberal," the employee contended. "But I think it's a lot healthier for the region than gas drilling."

The protest kicked off a week and perhaps a season of heightened activism by groups such as Pittsburgh United. Some irreverent "Tax Dodge(r) Ball" takes place today in Market Square and in Oakland, while events organized by the so-called 99% Spring, a "nonviolent civil disobedience" campaign taking inspiration from Occupy Wall Street, are scheduled through the coming months.


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