Area hospitals face 3-day strike

Union tactics reflect labor's adoption of new techniques

Brief walkouts favored

April 19, 2001|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

Hospital service workers are scheduled to walk off their jobs at noon today, and stay away through Saturday night, as they seek to win new contracts to replace one that expired in December.

The three-day job action follows one-day strikes in January and March by District 1199E-DC of the Services Employees International Union at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Sinai Hospital.

How long can this go on? And why aren't the hospital workers using a traditional strike, where they stay out of work until an agreement is reached?

Some of the answers might be provided by an SEIU local in Northern California, which has been bargaining for more than a year at a number of hospitals and has staged seven different short strikes, the most recent a three-day walkout concluding yesterday.

The "rolling blackout" strikes, along with a variety of other pressure techniques -- ranging from advertisements to picketing at fund-raisers to newsletters and Web sites critical of hospital management -- reflect the labor movement's development of new tactics as the traditional strike declines in importance.

Techniques such as the newsletters -- variously called "corporate campaigns" or "strategic campaigns" -- are a growing tool for unions. "The intent is to so embarrass the employers that they agree to make unionizing easier," said Jarol Manheim, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and author of "Labor Pains: The Corporate Campaign Against the Healthcare Industry."

Manheim said a traditional strike, shutting or reducing services at a hospital, would turn public opinion against the union. But brief, periodic walkouts, he said, are "a solidarity builder -- a way of pressuring management but still preserving the moral high ground for the union."

"It's working," said Sal Rosselli, president of SEIU Local 250 in Northern California. A series of short strikes, supported by other pressure, "is not so disruptive to patient care, and a good tool to educate the community," he said. After a year of bargaining and rolling strikes, his local recently won a contract at several hospitals owned by Catholic Healthcare West, but continues to battle another nonprofit hospital chain, Sutter Health.

Robert Polzoni, a spokesman for Catholic Healthcare West's Bay Area Region, has this advice for hospitals facing tough bargaining with the SEIU: "Fasten your seat belts. The SEIU is very good at what they do -- using the press, leveling charges."

Manheim said that in a corporate campaign a union does research starting with a "power structure analysis," looking at shareholders, bankers, insurers, vendors, customers, regulators and anyone else who is important to the employer.

In Baltimore, Robert Moore, president of District 199E-DC, won't get too specific in discussing future tactics. He does say the union will focus on Hopkins more than the other two hospitals.

"Hopkins is such a large employer that it has an impact on what everybody else pays," he said. "This is a world-class institution that appears to do so much for the rest of the world. What it does here is important."

The three-day strike comes as the Johns Hopkins University celebrates Homecoming weekend, and the SEIU plans to distribute leaflets at the airport, at hotels near campus and at the Homecoming lacrosse game, giving its views on the issues in the bargaining.

Over the past few weeks, the SEIU has launched a "Hopkins Watch" newsletter and Web site. The Web site contains messages such as "Do you have details on overpaid Hopkins execs? On conflicts of interest involving officials, board members or Hopkins vendors? On other suspected financial abuses? If you do, email the details to"

Hopkins went to federal court last week seeking to block the use of Hopkins' name and dome logo by Hopkins Watch. The judge declined to issue an order, but the SEIU did agree to some modifications and added a disclaimer.

Meanwhile, the university -- a separate institution from the hospital -- went to the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB regional office in Baltimore, in turn, filed in U.S. District Court yesterday, seeking an order blocking the union from disrupting Homecoming.

The court action does not indicate a "scale-up" of Hopkins' response to the union's tactics, said Joann Rodgers, deputy director of public affairs for Johns Hopkins Medicine. Although Hopkins always carefully monitors use of its name, she said, "We hope to resolve this at the bargaining table and not to use health care resources in responding to the union."

That's different from the response to the SEIU's strategic campaign in California. "Our department in communications and marketing has amped up its efforts to tell the true and accurate story of our organization," said Bill Gleeson, vice president for communications at Sutter Health. "The union is very good at manipulating and misrepresenting our record."

His office has even taken to issuing point-by-point rebuttals of each issue of the SEIU's newsletter "Sutter Scam Sheet."

Do the techniques work for unions? "You win some, you lose some," Manheim said. "But they must win enough, relative to the cost, to keep doing them."

Polzoni and Gleeson said the SEIU's tactics in California didn't have much impact on the bargaining. Officials of the three Baltimore hospitals say they operated with little disruption through the first two strikes, using volunteers, executives, temporary staff and workers from nonunion departments, and they expect to weather the next three days as well.

"Every employer has said that," said Rosselli, the union president. "They called it a nuisance at worst. But it's just a line. They get tired of them before the workers."

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