Workers signing union cards at Yale-New Haven Hospital

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — “Nobody can take away your courage,” said Carmen Boudier, president of New England 1199 SEIU, to a large audience of workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital who came to sign up for the union last week. “My brothers and sisters, we are with you,” she said. “You can do it. Stand up and fight. The community is with you!”

For years hospital workers here have sought a union to achieve better working conditions and improve their standard of living. But hospital management bitterly opposed any efforts by the workers to organize.

Two months ago, management signed a “conduct agreement” with Local 1199 of the Service Employees Union, which they had been fighting tooth and nail. The agreement, which was part of a groundbreaking “community benefits agreement” between the hospital, the city, the union and Community Organized for Responsible Development (CORD), paved the way for collecting union authorization cards from the workers.

The agreement allows union organizers to have access to the hospital to speak to employees without the threat of arrest by hospital police. No longer can bosses have one-on-one meetings with employees. No longer can they tell workers to take their union buttons off.

Community groups have joined forces with the union to help sign up 1,800 workers, the number the union says is needed to file an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board in Hartford, the state capital. A neutral party would monitor the vote.

At the organizing meeting, Ray Milici, who has worked at the hospital for over 40 years, said, “In 1973 dietary workers at this hospital won a first-time ever union election. Since that time we have been the only unit in this hospital that is represented by the union.”

“We have been alone for too long,” he said. “We need to be bigger and much stronger.”

Laura Smith, president of Local 34 at Yale University, said: “Right now at Yale, hospital workers are treated differently than workers on the university side. We are going to change things at the hospital starting right now.

“One standard for all workers,” she said.

Minnie DeCosta, a hospital employee, explained why she wants a union. “Right now the health insurance is taking a big bite out of my paycheck,” she said, adding that she had to rely on HUSKY, the state-funded health insurance plan for her children.

Sammy Reyes, a diagnostic radiology associate, said, “The hospital moved me around to different locations to keep me from trying to organize my co-workers. But having a union means we will have a voice on our jobs.”

The organizing drive, which is now in its eighth year, was given a boost by the movement spearheaded by CORD, which formed in 2004 primarily to insure that local communities would benefit from development projects in the city.

Around that time the hospital, which is located in the Hill neighborhood, announced plans to build a $530 million state-of-the-art cancer center. CORD members canvassed over 800 residents in the area about their concerns, gathered their suggestions and held a convention to adopt proposals. In attendance were local and state politicians, clergy, unions and community and environmental groups.

Over the next year and a half, CORD-sponsored hearings and rallies put additional heat on the hospital, which ultimately signed a development agreement with the city reflecting many of the community’s proposals.

The agreement includes provisions for the hospital to provide $1.2 million for housing and economic development in the surrounding area; to contribute $100,000 a year to a youth program; to set up a citizens’ advisory committee on the hospital’s free care and debt collections practices; and to fund two outreach positions at the city’s Health Department, one for asthma and one for uninsured children.

The hospital has agreed to hire 100 residents yearly for five years and will help provide advance training for workers in surrounding neighborhoods. The agreement also addresses community environmental, traffic and parking concerns.

Meanwhile, the union organizing drive continues, spurred on by the partial victory.