News & Events

Labor effort aimed at Hub health workers

By Joseph Williams, Globe Staff  |  March 30, 2009

WASHINGTON – Union canvassers in Boston are pursuing two urgent missions – organizing the city’s big teaching hospitals and trying to rally support for federal legislation that could enhance the strength of unions nationwide.

The two goals are intertwined: Passage of the bill before Congress would make success more likely for the Service Employees International Union’s Massachusetts chapter, which is two years into the hospital organizing effort that is focusing first on Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

"If there wasn’t a problem, the law wouldn’t be needed," said Mike Fadel, Local 1199’s executive vice president.

Beth Israel CEO Paul Levy, a harsh critic of the bill, has said it would eliminate free choice from the workplace and has said a union would do nothing to improve patient care at the hospital.
A hospital spokesman said that Levy would not comment on the bill, but referred to Levy’s blog, Running a hospital, where in one posting last month, Levy slammed the SEIU for "running roughshod over freedom of speech." In another posting last fall, Levy criticized the local SEIU chapter’s spending, writing that "as you read stories and ads over the coming months, think about who is really Goliath here, and who is really David."

SEIU, the nation’s fastest growing union, is one of the measure’s biggest supporters, spending at least $10 million on advertising and on lobbying Congress. The Massachusetts local has chipped in, setting up phone banks and going door-to-door in nearby states, urging residents to call their representatives in Washington.

"American workers are losing the American dream," Andy Stern, SEIU’s international president, said in an interview. "That’s what’s really at stake here."

In all, major business groups and labor unions have spent more than $225 million in the battle over the "check-card" bill, which organized labor considers its best chance in a generation to stem a long-term decline in membership.

The bill, backed by President Obama and many leading Democrats, would allow a majority of employees at a company to organize by signing cards, a change from current law that gives management the right to demand that workers ratify that decision through a secret ballot. Unions say the elections allow companies to use scare tactics and pressure employees to vote no, while management says that secret ballots are the only way to prevent unions from intimidating workers and also give workers more time to learn both sides of the issue.

"The vast majority of hospitals in Massachusetts are philosophically opposed," Lynn Nicholas, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Hospital Association, said in a telephone interview. Though the association isn’t opposed to all unionization, she said, with the proposal, "there’s no private, search-your-conscience vote at the end of the day."

Besides Beth Israel, the SEIU local is eventually expected to try to unionize the entire workforces at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and other major teaching hospitals. In January, Caritas Christi Health Care announced a deal with SEIU to not interfere with the union’s effort to try to organize about 13,000 employees at the six hospitals owned by the Archdiocese of Boston. SEIU successfully organized 25,000 Massachusetts home health assistants in 2007, and a year later negotiated a contract for them.

The battle over the legislation has spread from Capitol Hill to living rooms and Internet chat rooms nationwide. Through "Americans for Free Choice," a business-funded group, and "American Rights At Work," a pro-labor group, both sides are spending seven-figure sums on TV and print ads and other efforts. While each side claims it has been outspent by the other, most analysts say that business groups have the clear financial advantage. Both business and labor are determined to use their war chests until lawmakers vote on the Employee Free Choice Act, looking for any way to tilt public opinion. For the 2008 elections, the two sides have spent tens of millions since the new Congress convened in January.

"When so many people are out of work and businesses are failing, to be spending this kind of money really stands out," said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, the independent good-government group. Both business and labor agree that the bill would bring sweeping changes to their relationship, and provide a significant boost to workplace unions. Besides the check card provision, the bill includes two provisions that give the advantage to union organizers: penalties for businesses that interfere with the process, and mandatory, binding arbitration if they do not negotiate in good faith with the newly formed union.

The binding arbitration provision is "very, very threatening to employers," said Glenn Spencer, executive director of the Workforce Freedom Initiative of the US Chamber of Commerce, which plans its second Capitol Hill lobbying blitz on Wednesday.

"The issue isn’t whether workers should or shouldn’t join unions. The issue is the process that’s used for workers to form a union," he said in an interview.

Labor unions’ membership rolls have diminished steadily since the late 1970s. Although analysts say that corruption among top union officials contributed to the decline, analysts also point to a simultaneous rise in aggressive, antiunion management tactics, – including firing workplace organizers – and an erosion of the nation’s industrial and manufacturing base, once the stronghold of union membership.

While unions recorded a slight increase in membership last year for the first time in a quarter century, the 12.4 percent rate among employed workers is down from 20.1 percent in 1983. The increase in Massachusetts last year was larger, to 15.7 percent from 13.2 percent in 2007, according to federal labor statistics.

The chances for the bill, which was introduced earlier this month but has not gone before any committees, remain in doubt, particularly after Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the only Republican in the Senate to vote for the bill two years ago, announced last week that he will oppose it. Unions were hoping he would provide the crucial 60th vote to overcome an expected Republican filibuster.

Peter Berg, an associate professor of labor-management studies at Michigan State University, said labor leaders are determined to push the bill through during this Congress, fearing that any decline in the number of Democratic seats after the 2010 elections only worsens their chances.

"This would be a big and important shift for labor should they win," Berg said. "This would be major labor law reform that we haven’t seen in a long, long time."