Union renews push for labor protections at UM Medical Center

The union representing thousands of Maryland health care workers is renewing a push to apply state labor protections and collective bargaining laws to employees at the University of Maryland Medical Center, a move that hospital officials say is not needed to allow unionizing there.

A November opinion from the state attorney general's office spurred 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East to argue that state officials should oversee the hospital's labor relations, which includes not just unionizing but responding to any grievances from nonunion employees. A quirk in the hospital's governance prevents employees from complaining to either state or federal labor relations officials, but the opinion found that state labor law can apply.


The opinion sets up the possibility of major legal and organizational changes at the hospital, including adding it to a list of state agencies under the oversight of the State Labor Relations Board or removing the governor's authority over the hospital's board of directors.

The opinion does not apply to the other eight hospitals in the University of Maryland Medical System.

The Baltimore medical center is the only one in the state whose employees lack labor protections, according to the union. But hospital officials say no legal changes are needed to give workers the right to unionize, noting that an effort to do so last year failed.

"It is outrageous that workers at the flagship hospital of the University of Maryland Medical System don't have the same labor protections available at every other hospital in the state," said John Reid, executive vice president of the Maryland-DC region of 1199SEIU, in a statement. "The decision by the state attorney general goes a long way toward supporting labor protections for caregivers at the University of Maryland Medical Center here in Baltimore."

Eight hospitals statewide have unionized workers, according to the Maryland Hospital Association.

The issue stems from the creation of the university medical system in 1984. It was founded as a private nonprofit, independent of the state but for a few ties, including that its board of directors is appointed by the governor. That board also oversees the medical center, but other hospitals in the system, which includes the University of Maryland Medical Center Midtown Campus (formerly Maryland General Hospital) and the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, have their own private governance.

Because of the state ties that extend to the medical center, it cannot be under the purview of the National Labor Relations Board, which offers labor protections to the other system hospitals and most private-sector workers across the country. But the medical center also is not under the oversight of the State Labor Relations Board, which protects state workers in all departments of the state's executive branch and other state agencies overseeing insurance, lottery, primary and higher education, and taxation.

Despite the technicalities, university medical center officials said, the hospital operates as if it were under the authority of the national labor board. Some hospital food service and housekeeping employees are members of the state's employees union, officials said. In the fall 2012, 1199SEIU solicited employes for union membership but chose not to pursue a vote to unionize.

The union contends that the issue is not about increasing its membership, but about extending protections that workers lack. Even nonunion workers have the right to band together in opposition to management and to file grievances with a labor relations board, union officials said.

Some lawmakers agree. The issue was discussed in the General Assembly's legislative session this year, but lawmakers delayed action while awaiting the attorney general's opinion. Talks resumed in a hearing last month.

"Here you have a group of workers that really seem to be denied a right to file a grievance," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat from Charles County. "We have to resolve it, and that's why we asked for the attorney general's opinion."

The medical system opposes any solution that places the hospital under the jurisdiction of the state labor relations board, officials said.

"We believe that there are other, more appropriate options for resolving the current absence of labor board jurisdiction, and are exploring those options at this time," said Mary Lynn Carver, spokeswoman for the university medical system, in an email.

It is unclear what changes would be needed to qualify the hospital for the national labor board's jurisdiction. Middleton proposed making the system's board private instead of publicly appointed, but the attorney general's opinion suggests it might be more complicated than that. The national board said in 2010 that it lacked jurisdiction over the medical center because it was an "instrumentality of the state."


Earlier versions of this article mischaracterized efforts to unionize at the University of Maryland Medical Center in 2012. It has been corrected.</i>