Yales hospital: Poster child for union-busting

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH) is 650 miles from the notorious anti-worker Smithfield Foods livestock processing factory in Tar Heel, N.C. On Smithfield’s killing floors and in New Haven’s healing wards, the workers have something in common. Their employers use illegal, anti-democratic union-busting tactics to deny a voice on the job.

In December 2006, the YNHH administration outraged workers, elected officials, clergy, the media and the entire community when they defied a conduct agreement and undermined a union election they were certain to lose. The hospital became the new poster child for why the Employee Free Choice Act (HR 800) is a top priority in the 110th Congress.

The case history

In 1973, the hospital’s 140 food service workers made history when they won union representation with New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199. For 34 years the dietary workers have fought hard to maintain modest wage and benefit increases, despite the fact that the remaining 1,800 service, maintenance and clerical workers at the hospital are unorganized.

“If it wasn’t for the food service workers all these years actively organizing, none of the wage increases or benefits would exist. Yale-New Haven Hospital would be the Wal-Mart of health care,” says Ray Milici, a chef with 45 years seniority who helped lead the original organizing drive.

When 2,600 clerical and technical workers at Yale University formed Local 34 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union, HERE, and won a first union contract in 1984, joining 1,500 service and maintenance workers already organized in Local 35 HERE, hopes were high that the hospital workers would be next to win the right to a union.

Although they are legally separate, YNHH and Yale University have interlocking directorates and huge endowments. They are notoriously anti-union. Employees of Yale University at the medical school who are members of Local 34 often work side by side with employees of YNHH, doing the same job for better wages and benefits won in their union contract.

But, without the strength of a fully organized hospital, the ability of both the hospital’s dietary and the university’s union workers to win big improvements is limited.

Many hospital workers, unable to afford health care for themselves, hold down two or more jobs to make ends meet. Hospital worker Minnie DaCosta says she wants a union because she has had to rely on HUSKY, the state-funded health plan, to cover her children.

Nine years ago, Locals 34 and 35 joined with 1199 to form the Federation of Hospital and University Employees. By pooling resources, the unions hoped to organize the rest of the hospital.

Bosses create atmosphere of fear

YNHH immediately began utilizing all their resources to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. While claiming that good conditions at the hospital do not warrant the need for a union, they illegally arrested workers who distributed union literature to co-workers on their own time and barred union organizers from the public areas of the hospital.

The long organizing drive is a showcase of the uneven playing field. Management has had access to all of the workers, all of the time. When the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that management violated the law, there was no substantial penalty. Pro-union workers, on the other hand, faced discipline or loss of job if they tried to talk to their co-workers about the union.

In 2002, nearly 1,200 hospital workers courageously signed an appeal for card-check neutrality. They wanted the hospital to recognize the union if a majority of workers signed union cards. Around the country, when employers have agreed to card-check neutrality, workers have readily chosen to join unions and achieved significant gains.

The hospital insisted instead on a NLRB election process, including the right to challenge the results if the majority were to vote for the union. Employer challenges often take years to settle, during which time workers’ rights are denied.

Community and union join together

The surrounding New Haven community, majority African American and Latino, was hurting from the anti-worker policies of the city’s largest employer. As industrial jobs left town, Yale’s discriminatory hiring practices and aggressive expansion into working-class neighborhoods were destroying affordable housing, creating traffic and parking problems and degrading the environment. The needs of the community became closely intertwined with the status of workers’ rights at Yale.

A movement for a social contract emerged, with labor, clergy and grassroots leadership. The Connecticut Center for a New Economy and Community Organized for Responsible Development (CORD) issued studies, organized meetings and conferences and went door to door urging people to become involved. So much support was built up that the 30-member Board of Aldermen unanimously passed a Community Benefit Agreement resolution, requiring any large new development in the city to have neighborhood input.

When the hospital announced plans to build a $430 million cancer center, CORD insisted that in order to get zoning approval the hospital must agree to the Community Benefit Agreement covering card-check neutrality, hiring and training of workers who live in New Haven, and neighborhood needs, including youth services and health care.

The hospital tried to ignore CORD, but after months of demonstrations, stormy hearings and public pressure, a compromise was reached. The hospital agreed to a hybrid election process conducted by the NLRB with an independent arbitrator replacing the normal lengthy appeals process.

A code of conduct was signed which allowed union organizers access to non-work areas in the hospital and prohibited the administration from harassment and captive audience meetings. The hospital also agreed to community demands for jobs, training and neighborhood programs.

Workers’ power in action

The Federation of Hospital and University Employees built a strong organizing committee based on rank-and-file workers. Members of Local 34 and 35 and 1199 food service workers acted as volunteer organizers. Within a few months, over half the eligible hospital workers had signed union cards.

The union had to struggle against misinformation and distortion spread by management. One management flyer listed recent improvements in benefits. Next to each was a big question mark, implying that with a union, workers could lose what they already have. Anti-union workers, solicited by management, relied on national anti-union web sites and organizations.

Alongside the negative attacks, YNHH gave out bonuses — wage increases of up to $2 an hour, a program to help first-time home buyers and hospital-wide monthly birthday parties.

Despite the hospital’s tactics, a majority of workers signed union cards. The union filed for an NLRB election, which was set for last Dec. 21-22. The workers were determined to win.

Sammy Reyes, a diagnostic radiology associate, told his co-workers at an organizing meeting that he would not stop. “The hospital moved me around to different locations to keep me from trying to organize my co-workers,” he said, “but having a union means we will have a voice on our jobs.”

The workers continued to garner more community support. New Haven Black and Latino clergy were among the longtime supporters of workers’ rights at the hospital. Now Catholic clergy, representing many of the mostly white workers from the suburbs, signed a statement of support. This created the conditions for strengthening the unity of all sections of the workforce in support of the union. The hospital responded with escalated pressure on the Catholic clergy and workers.

Hospital management pushes class war

Under CEO Marna Borgstrom, YNHH stepped up violations of the Community Benefit Agreement. Management held meetings with all supervisors to coordinate an escalated anti-union campaign. Supervisors held one-on-one meetings with workers. They falsely claimed that a union contract would not allow supervisors to give time off to go to the doctor or attend to other emergencies. They threatened that benefits would be cut and job security would be eliminated.

To get around the fact that management was prohibited by the fair election agreement from forcing workers to attend anti-union meetings, supervisors scheduled compulsory meetings to discuss department business. After a few minutes, they would announce that they were going to talk about the union. Workers were now “free” to leave, but anyone who did would be fingered as a union supporter.

In this atmosphere, members of Locals 34 and 35 and 1199 food service workers showed consistent courage and determination.

A noontime rally of Local 34 members heard that YNHH supervisors were meeting in a nearby university building to plan anti-union strategy. Over 100 Local 34 members marched into the meeting room, holding signs and singing union songs. After a few minutes, the supervisors had to give up and walk out.

On a daily basis, food service workers, proudly wearing their 1199 union buttons, refused to be intimidated. They spent their breaks in the cafeteria and lobby talking to other workers about their own positive experience as union members.

But after two weeks of all-out war by YNHH management, enough workers had been bullied, intimidated, isolated and lied-to that the union concluded there could no longer be a fair election. By deliberately creating an atmosphere of polarization and fear, management had “poisoned the well.”

The union appealed to the arbitrator overseeing the Community Benefit Agreement, Margaret Kern. On Dec. 13, after hearing the evidence, Kern ruled in favor of the union’s request to indefinitely postpone the election because “the employer has engaged in serious violations of federal law, the election principles agreement, and prior arbitration awards.” The hospital had succeeded in subverting the democratic process.

Storm of protest

The hospital’s actions created a storm of protest. The anti-union New Haven Register editorially blasted the hospital for its conduct, as did Yale University President Richard Levin, who sits on the hospital board. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called for the hospital to abide by card-check neutrality. The mayor and Board of Aldermen are considering what actions they will take.

Instead of starting out the new year by negotiating their first contract, hospital workers remain stuck without adequate pay or respect, while CEO Borgstrom, who wrote her master’s thesis on union-busting techniques for hospitals, continues to enjoy her $1-million-plus salary.

Employee Free Choice needed

YNHH was able to prevent December’s union election. But six weeks earlier, another election took place. The American people spoke plainly for a change in Washington away from pro-corporate policies.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, whose district includes New Haven, said of the hospital’s actions, “This proves that now more than ever we need to pass into law initiatives such as the Employee Free Choice Act, which would establish a system of ‘card-check neutrality’ and give workers a fair chance to decide to organize for themselves free from intimidation and coercion.”

The future of workers at YNHH and at Smithfield, along with the communities where they are located, are bound together in this great battle to guarantee the human right to union representation.

Even as the struggle to organize the hospital continues in New Haven, the campaign for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act has begun in the halls of Congress.

Instead of sitting down at the bargaining table with 2,000 newly organized members, Ray Milici and his brothers and sisters are once again bargaining on behalf of 140 dietary workers, as their contract runs out. “We’ll just have to wait a little longer,” said Milici. “In the end, it’s truth to power and we will win.”

Art Perlo is active in union support at Yale. Joelle Fishman is chair of the Connecticut Communist Party.