O'Malley backs out of news conference as union hits Hopkins

Hospital called `Wal-Mart of health care industry'

December 10, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

A news conference scheduled for this morning at City Hall was canceled yesterday after the union that was to be host announced that it would take aim at Johns Hopkins Hospital as "the Wal-Mart of the health care industry" and Mayor Martin O'Malley backed out of the event. Service Employees International Union District 1199E-DC in Baltimore issued a news release that described the participation of the mayor and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who also leads the Congressional Black Caucus, in an event marking today as International Human Rights Day.

SEIU is negotiating a contract with Johns Hopkins, where it represents more than 1,500 workers in housekeeping, maintenance, nutrition and other areas. It is simultaneously negotiating contracts with Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Sinai Hospital.It represents 450 workers at each of those hospitals. In its latest negotiations with Hopkins, the union is hoping to make it easier to organize workers in nonunionized departments of the region's largest hospital.

Though no members of nonunionized departments have asked to join, union officials said the multistep process when a department's employees do seek to unionize is arduous and a deterrent to organizing.

"This great institution that has won world acclaim for opening doors to medical knowledge, slams doors in the face of its own employees seeking union representation," Bob Moore, the SEIU District 1199E-DC president, was quoted in the union's release.

After inquiries by The Sun into whether O'Malley and Cummings support the union's position on Hopkins, spokeswomen said the officials would not be attending today. The union later canceled the event and softened its tone. "The wording was unfortunate, because it seems that we're saying that Johns Hopkins has the same attitude as Wal-Mart, but we didn't mean that," said Larry Rubin, communications director for SEIU District 1199E-DC . "It was a very poorly worded release."

Johns Hopkins Hospital released a statement in response just as the event was being canceled. "Hopkins officials will negotiate for a fair and realistic contract that reflects both the rising costs of delivering health care, the larger economic environment, our patient care and teaching mission, and the substantial commitments already made to our bargaining unit and other employees," the hospital said.

"Already, the Johns Hopkins Hospital pays more to all of its employees, including those covered by the collective bargaining agreement, than the `living wage' set by Mayor Martin O'Malley for city workers. Hopkins Hospital also has added a rich benefits package. Hopkins has fully honored all the provisions of the current union contract pertaining to union organizing activities and in some cases has gone beyond what the law requires."

Devika Koppikar, a spokeswoman for Cummings, said the congressman could not attend because of a schedule conflict. The cancellation had nothing to do with the union's comments about Hopkins, she said. Cummings' office had never confirmed that he could attend the news conference, Koppikar said, and miscommunication was likely.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said late yesterday after an inquiry about the mayor's position on the issue that he no longer planned to attend the news conference. She added that it would not be held at City Hall but declined to explain why.

Rubin, the union spokesman, said the portion of the news release that said Hopkins "could be described as the Wal-Mart of the health care industry" wasn't meant to disparage the medical institution.

Wal-Mart employee campaigns generally involve the entire community rather than only the workers, Rubin said, and SEIU plans a similar campaign to pressure Hopkins.

"All we're saying and all the mayor and Elijah Cummings have told us is that they support workers' rights," Rubin said. "That's different from being against Hopkins."

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