Union sets 2-day strike at 3 hospitals

June 8 walkout aims to put pressure on Sinai, GBMC, Hopkins

May 29, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

About 2,700 maintenance, housekeeping and other workers at three of the region's largest hospitals - Johns Hopkins, Sinai and Greater Baltimore Medical Center - plan to strike for two days next month to protest what they say are low wages and poor health care benefits.

The Service Employees International Union, which is negotiating separate contracts for workers at all three hospitals, said the strike is scheduled to begin at 6 a.m. June 8 and end at 6 a.m. June 10.

A strike could be averted if progress is made in the talks before then.

All three hospitals said in statements or through spokesmen that patient care and services would not be affected by a strike.

"What I would tell patients is there would be no noticeable change in service. We'll make sure there would be a smooth and orderly transition of operations, but it would be imperceptible to the patient and the visitor," said Jill Bloom, a spokeswoman for Sinai, adding that the sides are still negotiating and that the hospital is still hoping to avoid a strike.

SEIU 1199E-DC represents about 1,700 Hopkins workers and about 1,000 workers at GBMC and Sinai combined.

The union represents maintenance and housekeeping workers as well as nursing assistants and food preparers.

Workers from all three hospitals staged one-day strikes in January and March of 2001, when they negotiated their last contract.

The workers' current contract expired Dec. 1, though some contracts were extended, and hospital and union officials have been negotiating since before then.

GBMC's union-represented employees have been working without a contract since December, while those at Sinai and Hopkins have been working without a contract since February.

"My biggest hope would be that we don't wind up going on strike, that everybody would get the message," said Bob Moore, president of SEIU 1199E-DC.

"But we are in the process of trying to organize community support for our economic package as well as getting the message across that the hospital should bargain with us fairly."

To publicize its position, the union has rented local billboards, including one at the Orleans Street bridge in downtown Baltimore that pictures a worker saying, "After 31 years, I still can't afford to retire."

At issue are pay increases and health care benefits.

The union said that at Hopkins, for instance, the package on the table includes a 25 percent increase to workers in the cost of health premiums over three years, coupled with salary increases of 2 percent or 2.25 percent each year for three years.

Under that proposal, Moore said, workers would be worse off financially in three years than they are today.

"The cost of health insurance in relation to meager wage increases being offered at this stage will be a hardship on the workers," he said, adding that some SEIU workers at the hospital are eligible for public assistance because their incomes are so low.

The rising cost of health care is typically the No. 1 issue in labor union negotiations around the country. It has been a major sticking point for workers ranging from Verizon phone technicians in Maryland to the Safeway supermarket clerks in California.

In the SEIU negotiations, the union also alleges the hospitals are committing unfair labor practices, such as agreeing to proposals and later reneging on them.

Hospital officials said that they had been productively negotiating with the union and that they hoped to avoid a strike.

"We've had several productive meetings with union officials over the past few months and look forward to continuing those discussions," GBMC said in a statement yesterday.

A statement from Hopkins released yesterday read:

"Regrettably, it appears that the union is more willing to devote its energy and resources to organizing a strike rather than on a good faith effort to reach an agreement. ...

"We remain prepared to make reasonable compromises provided the union proves equally flexible."

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