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New unionization drive awaits big teaching hospitals

Veronica Turner heads Local 1199, the largest health care union in Massachusetts, with 35,000 workers. Veronica Turner heads Local 1199, the largest health care union in Massachusetts, with 35,000 workers. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / July 6, 2010

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The new head of the state’s largest health care union plans an aggressive push to organize workers this fall at Boston’s academic medical centers, which are grappling with reduced revenue and the prospect of a drop in federal funding.

Since it began a campaign to unionize top hospitals in 2007, Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union has seen limited success. But now, with some smaller hospitals unionized and new leaders at the union and at Partners HealthCare System Inc., the state’s largest medical care provider, the union is preparing to again target Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Tufts Medical Center.

Veronica Turner, elected last month to run SEIU’s Local 1199, said the union’s successful organizing efforts at several of the state’s Catholic hospitals — including St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton and Carney Hospital in Dorchester — have given the campaign new life.

Last year, the union negotiated a four-year contract with Caritas Christi Health Care that gave about 3,000 employees at four Caritas hospitals a 3 percent raise and $350 bonuses on Jan. 1. The workers include respiratory therapists, surgical and X-ray technicians, clerks, nursing assistants, housekeepers, and dietary employees.

As they did with Caritas Christi, union leaders hope to reach agreements with leaders of Boston teaching hospitals that will allow employees to hold what they call “free and fair’’ elections, without pressure from management to reject the union.

“The strategic alliance we formed with Caritas can serve as a role model for other hospitals,’’ Turner said in an interview at Local 1199’s Dorchester offices. “The Caritas collective bargaining agreement gives us momentum. We had workers who went from $8 to $12.62 an hour immediately. That changes someone’s life.’’

Local 1199 represents about 35,000 employees at hospitals, nursing homes, and home care programs across Massachusetts.

Turner, 38, a Boston native and former Boston Medical Center employee who worked her way up the union ranks, said the union plans to complete its organizing drive soon at the two remaining nonunion Caritas Christi hospitals, Saint Anne’s in Fall River and Holy Family in Methuen, before moving on to the Boston teaching hospitals.

She said she expects to send letters to hospital chief executives this year, asking them to allow the union to organize without interference. As part of the alliance the union seeks with management, it would help unionized hospitals draw more federal aid and negotiate higher reimbursements from health insurers.

“We’re going to ramp up after we’re done with Caritas because the Caritas workers are anxious to help their comrades organize and the workers at these other hospitals are just as eager,’’ Turner said. “This won’t come as a surprise to the CEOs that we’re reaching out to them. We’ll see who’s willing to work with us.’’

Groups of workers at several Partners hospitals, including Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s, already belong to some other unions, including the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

So far, Local 1199’s only Partners foothold is at Union Hospital in Lynn, part of North Shore Medical Center. But Turner said Dr. Gary L. Gottlieb, the former Brigham and Women’s president who took over as Partners’ chief executive in January, might be more sympathetic to the union than his predecessor. “We think the philosophy is different, and we’re hoping he’ll be more open to us,’’ she said.

Partners officials would not say whether they are adopting a different approach.

“We have hospitals with unions and hospitals without unions,’’ said Thomas P. Glynn, chief operating officer at Partners. Asked if Partners would welcome Local 1199, he said, “Historically, we haven’t done our labor relations negotiations in the newspaper.’’

Representatives of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, another Harvard-affiliated hospital, declined to discuss the union’s organizing drive. In the past, Beth Israel Deaconess’s president, Paul F. Levy, has been vocal in his opposition. In a blog post in December, he wrote that Local 1199 has “in many ways, lost its soul as it has gained power and influence.’’

Turner said she doubted Levy will have a change of heart. “We don’t believe there will be a strategic alliance under his leadership,’’ she said.

She hinted the union was ready to press forward, if necessary, without cooperation from Beth Israel’s management. “There are workers at BI who want to have a union and want a seat at the table,’’ Turner said. “I don’t see how we can walk away from that.’’

Tufts Medical Center, affiliated with Tufts Medical School, declined to comment.

Addressing the anticipated union requests for agreements that hospitals will not campaign against the union during labor elections, John Erwin, executive director of the Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals, said, “That’s a decision that each individual hospital will have to make.’’

Under what union leaders call the “free and fair’’ agreement signed with Caritas’s chief executive, Ralph de la Torre, the hospital chain agreed not to lobby against the union, while labor leaders agreed not to disparage management.

Since then, Caritas has agreed to be sold to a New York private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management, which has promised to honor the union contracts.

The leadership of Local 1199 supports the Cerberus deal.

The union unveiled its plan to organize workers at Boston teaching hospitals in October 2007, with actor and film director Ben Affleck and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino endorsing the campaign. Since then, the union has had successes in organizing Caritas hospitals and personal care attendants, but progress has been slower at the prestigious Boston hospitals.

The attempt to jump-start the effort comes as even the largest hospitals are dealing with flat patient volume, rising expenses, and a shortfall in payments for Medicare and Medicaid, the government insurance programs for older and low-income residents.

Turner said the slumping economy hit health care workers hard, and that raising their living standard is critical to the overall recovery in Massachusetts.

“Health care is the largest industry in this state,’’ she said. “So if we want to turn the economy around, the workers have to be part of that.’’

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

State of the unions
Boston hospitals and their union status

Massachusetts General Hospital: No unions

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center: No unions

Brigham and Women?s Hospital: Massachusetts Nurses Association, Operating Engineers

Tufts Medical Center: Massachusetts Nurses Association

Boston Medical Center: Service Employees International Union, Massachusetts Nurses Association, AFSCME

St. Elizabeth?s Medical Center: Service Employees International Union, Massachusetts Nurses Association, Area Trades Council

Carney Hospital: Service Employees International Union, Massachusetts Nurses Association, Area Trades Council

SOURCES: THE HOSPITALS