Union sets walkout at 3 hospitals

1-day job action targets better pay for service workers

Contracts expired Dec. 1

Officials at Hopkins, GBMC, Sinai expect `business as usual'

January 30, 2001|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

Seeking higher wages and a better chance to expand union coverage, nearly 2,500 service workers are scheduled to stage a one-day walkout tomorrow at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Sinai Hospital.

Officials of all three hospitals said they expect to be able to operate normally, using supervisors and volunteers. The union represents dietary, housekeeping, maintenance and clerical workers, along with technicians and patient-care aides. The walkout is scheduled to begin at 6 a.m.

"It should be business as usual," said Jill Bloom, a spokeswoman for Sinai. Joann Rodgers, a spokeswoman for Hopkins, said, "There's every expectation that all operations will be up and running as usual."

The one-day strike could be avoided by last-minute progress in bargaining with the three hospitals. "That's always a possibility - we're still meeting - but I'm not as optimistic as they [hospital officials] seem to be," said Robert Moore, president of District 1199E-DC of the Service Employees International Union.

The last time the union bargained, in 1997, it scheduled a 2 1/2 -hour strike but settled with Hopkins and Sinai a few hours before the job action. It did, however, stage strikes of 10 days to two weeks against Hopkins, GBMC and Maryland General in 1974, against Hopkins and Sinai in 1980, and against GBMC and Sinai in 1984.

The negotiations are being held as hospitals nationwide are experiencing labor tension while they struggle to control costs, said Linda Aiken, director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies health work force issues.

"Wages have been relatively flat the past few years," Aiken said. "The employees are asked to do more and more with fewer resources, and that's a natural formula for labor action."

Union members echoed that.

"We've been working short-staffed for years," said Lisa Jackson, a member of the union bargaining committee who is a secretary in the oncology unit at Sinai. "There's a lot of overtime, and people are pulled to other units that are short-staffed."

The union is seeking to "end poverty wages in health care," asking that all workers be paid at least $10 an hour, Moore said. Now, he said, the lowest-paid workers at Hopkins get $7.52 an hour.

The union at Hopkins is seeking raises of 6 percent a year over a three-year contract, while the hospital is offering 3 percent a year, Rodgers said.

Kay Taylor, a spokeswoman at GBMC, said the proposals on the table there are "in the same ballpark." Moore and Bloom declined to discuss details of the wage talks.

Another issue, Moore said, is the degree of access to workers in nonunionized departments. Moore said the SEIU is seeking contract provisions - and also is supporting a bill in the General Assembly - barring managers from meeting with employees during work time to argue against union membership. He said workers find such meetings intimidating.

The hospitals are concerned about union organizers in the workplace. "We really don't want any activity going on that will disrupt the workplace," Bloom said.

Moore said the union will be looking for other workers to honor its picket lines but is not asking the public to stay away from the hospitals. After the one-day walkout, he said, "we will return to the table and try to reach agreement." If those efforts fail, he said, "there's always the possibility of an open-ended strike," but the union has not set a deadline.

The union has separate contracts with each of the hospitals, but settlements have often followed a pattern. All of the contracts expired Dec. 1.

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