Workers stage 2nd strike at 3 hospitals

Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks to gathering at Hopkins campus

One-day work stoppage

March 16, 2001|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Likening their struggle to the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson urged more than 2,000 striking service workers and supporters yesterday to continue their fight for better pay, benefits and working conditions at three Baltimore hospitals.

"You may be a maid, cook or janitor ... but you're still somebody. You're still God's child," Jackson said to the chanting crowd at Wyman Park, on the edge of the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus.

The one-day strike - the second one this year - was called by a local of the Service Employees International Union to protest the impasse on new union contracts at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Sinai Hospital.

Union workers, whose contracts expired Dec. 1, are seeking better wages and health benefits, and limits on what hospitals can do to oppose unionization drives.

Hopkins pays workers as little as $7.52 per hour - what the union calls "poverty wages." While Hopkins has offered to raise the entry-level wage to $8.45, the union is asking for at least $10 per hour at all three hospitals. GBMC and Sinai have put forth similar proposals, according to union officials, but no details have been released.

Hopkins has roughly 1,600 union workers, and GBMC and Sinai have about 450 apiece.

The hospitals and the union have several divides to cross: For instance, Hopkins' proposal calls for a 3 percent annual raise over three years, while the union is asking for 5 percent. Another major source of contention is the union's proposal to prohibit hospital managers from conducting on-the-job meetings to oppose unionization. That remains fiercely opposed by the hospitals.

After the rally, Jackson led the chanting throng several hundred yards to the Johns Hopkins University's administrative offices. He tried to walk into the building for an unscheduled meeting with William R. Brody, Hopkins' president, but the doors were locked and Brody was out of the office on an appointment, according to a university spokesman.

Ronald R. Peterson, Johns Hopkins Health System's president, said at a briefing yesterday morning that hospital and union officials held a fruitless bargaining session Wednesday night. The strike began at 12:01 a.m. yesterday.

"They would like to have access to nonunion employees," said Peterson. "They would like to do that with a gag rule so that management can't talk. We should have the right to talk to our employees."

"It's utter nonsense," Robert Moore, president of the SEIU local, District 1199E-DC, said yesterday. "What we have said is the workers ought to have their freedom to choose."

Moore said the hospital is putting up a "smokescreen" with its claims that the union is being driven by a national agenda.

"It's disappointing if they don't see that this is clearly local," Moore said. "The wages they're paying are an issue for our members. That's what's driving it. If our members say tomorrow this is all good and fine, that's the way it will be."

Hopkins officials said they drew on nonunion workers to fill the jobs of absent workers, and Sinai hired some temporary workers, according to a spokeswoman. GBMC officials could not be reached for comment.

"We put all of our emphasis on patient-care areas," said Judy Reitz, Hopkins Hospital's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Workers and supporters, many of whom wore purple berets and jackets - the SEIU's official color - started pouring into Wyman Park after 10:30 a.m. after picketing since the early morning at their respective hospitals.

Moore said 95 percent of union workers at all hospitals had joined the strike action.

Kathy Moore, a Sinai spokeswoman, said that about 50 percent of Sinai's union workers had crossed the picket line as of 4 p.m., with two shifts remaining until midnight. Moore filled in as a nurse's assistant.

"These are skilled jobs and these people are missed," said Moore. "However, Sinai has trained people to fill in" for striking workers.

Fifty-year-old Laura Pugh, a cook in Hopkins' nutrition department, said she has worked at the hospital for 31 years and has been involved in all the strikes.

"I'm here for better wages, better pension plan and better benefits," said Pugh, who lives in Baltimore.

Dennis Rivera, president of 1199 SEIU in New York, estimated that more than 2,000 union workers came from New York to support the Baltimore hospital workers.

After the Wyman Park rally, workers from all three Baltimore hospitals and their out-of-state supporters piled back onto buses and went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to continue picketing in the rain until about 4:30 p.m.

Moore, the union local president, said that the union has not ruled out a multiday strike and that another union action could happen in mid-April, if an agreement is not reached.

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