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Hub hospital workers rally behind union effort

Micah Nemiroff | 5/14/2008, 9:12 a.m.

Backed by the loud, brash Irish punk rock music of The Dropkick Murphys, hundreds packed a closed-off Avenue Louis Pasteur in the Longwood Medical Area last Thursday at a rally supporting efforts to unionize city hospital workers.

Rally organizers called upon area hospitals to agree to free and fair leadership elections in hopes of unionizing the non-union hospitals.

“We’re trying to get hospitals to sign a fair election agreement. If the workers decide that they want to unionize, they should have the right,” said George Gresham, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199. “We’re trying to communicate to the public and the hospital CEOs that we want to come in as partners, but we’re not gonna go away.”

Past efforts to unionize hospital workers have failed, and local hospitals have shown no signs that they will budge from their stance.

In an August 2006 post on his “Running a Hospital” blog, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) President and CEO Paul Levy argued that the allowance of fair elections — defined as “the normal unionizing process … of getting authorization cards from 30 percent of the members of a future bargaining unit, followed by a secret ballot election of that group of workers, under federal rules and monitored by the National Labor Relations Board” — is not the problem.

If “each employee, unencumbered by peer pressure or other outside forces, gets to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the sanctity of a private voting place,” then a vote for a union is just, Levy wrote in an August 2006 e-mail he sent to the BIDMC staff.

Levy’s beef was with the SEIU’s calls for management “neutrality,” meaning hospital management would have to agree to support a union’s organizing efforts and, as he put it, agree “not to talk about unionization.”

Such “neutrality” would limit the institution’s “ability to discuss the pros and cons of the issue” and, he wrote, would depart from its tradition “steeped in open dialogue and exchange of views.”

Jeff Hall, communications director for SEIU Local 1199, said BIDMC is one of many local hospitals to take what he considers to be aggressive anti-union positions.

“Our message to the CEOs and management is that caregivers should not be taken away from the bedside and threatened for their union activity,” said Hall.

That sentiment was echoed by a number of workers at last Thursday’s rally.

Anestine Bentick, a medical assistant at the South Boston Community Health Center, said she was forced to watch anti-union videos by a former employer, and Massachusetts General Hospital dispatcher Billy Timmins said he has fought to establish a union at the hospital for nearly two decades.

“When I first got there, we would be threatened [if we’d] try to organize a union,” said Timmins.

Anthony Patti, a former skilled maintenance worker at BIDMC, described experiences of intimidation within non-union hospitals.

“They would sit you down, have one-on-ones with you and said they would fire us, subcontract the entire maintenance department,” he said. “They would guarantee us only 12 more months of dental and health insurance.

“When I was working with Beth Israel and they realized you were pro-union, they would do anything in their power to legally push you out the door, like change your shifts around,” Patti continued. “They would give you jobs that are impossible workloads to get done in an eight-hour work period. They would tell you to do it by yourself, and write you up (a disciplinary measure) if you didn’t get the work done.”

Negotiations between SEIU and management at the various hospitals are still ongoing.

Most nurses are already unionized. Many skilled and unskilled hospital workers are not.