Hopkins Hospital workers give notice to strike

The labor union representing service workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital has given the medical institution notice that employees are prepared to strike next week if negotiations over wages remain deadlocked.

The notice issued by the 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East labor union authorizes a four-day strike beginning June 27 and would be the second strike by the union in two months. The union, which also organized a three-day strike in April, has been negotiating on behalf of 2,000 housekeepers, cooks and other workers.

The union seeks a $15 minimum wage for workers with at least 15 years of experience in the second year of a proposed four-year contract, with every Hopkins worker earning at least $14 an hour by the end of the contract. Workers now start at $10.71 to $27.88 per hour, depending on their job.

The two sides continued negotiations Tuesday with Hopkins offering across-the-board raises that average less than 2 percent a year, union officials said. Workers with 15 years of experience would make $15 an hour in the last year of the contract under the Hopkins proposal, and those with the least amount of experience would make $12.25 an hour in year four.

The latest Hopkins offer showed some progress but still was disappointing, which prompted the strike notice, said John Reid, executive vice president of the Maryland-D.C. region of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. The proposal doesn't give enough compensation to less senior employees, he said.

"They continue to be on the path to not raise the entry-level salaries, or the people with 10 years or less of experience," Reid said.

Hopkins officials said they were hopeful a strike could be averted.

"We are disappointed that union negotiators have notified us of an intent to strike on June 27," the hospital said in a statement. "Still, we are hopeful that before then, if both parties make good faith efforts to negotiate, we will have a contract that we all feel is fair and equitable."

The two sides will head back to the bargaining table Monday. The union will vote to reaffirm the decision to strike next week if they don't come to an agreement with Hopkins. Hopkins is preparing for the possibility of a strike.

"Ultimately, our patients and their families are our priority, and should these employees decide to strike, we are putting in place contingency staffing plans to assure no disruptions to patient care," the Hopkins statement said.

The economic climate may make it difficult to sway big employers such as Johns Hopkins, labor experts have said. Unemployment remains high, meaning there are people out of work who could be used as replacement workers during a strike or permanently.

"Things are tough because we are still climbing out of that deep recession," said Chris Tilly, director of UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. "Unemployment is still relatively high across the country. That creates an environment where labor has less bargaining power and management has more."

Mini strikes can be effective because they disrupt the work environment but are less burdensome on workers who can't afford to take off much work time, Tilly said. It also helps with public perception because striking workers appear less as if they are hurting patient care, he said.

Hopkins workers said they need higher salaries because many can't afford basic living expenses on what they make. Some are on food stamps, and while Hopkins offers health insurance, many can't afford to pay for coverage for their children and spouses, who can end up on public assistance.

The union has tried several tactics to sway Hopkins, including a large rally at Baltimore's Inner Harbor featuring actors Danny Glover and Wendell Pierce.

The group also asked a state panel to require hospitals to disclose whether their workers receive food stamps or other public assistance when reporting what benefit the institutions provide to the community.

As part of their nonprofit status, hospitals must report to the commission what public health benefit and charity care they provide. The labor union said the benefit figures hospitals report are not accurate. Underpaying their workers, the union said, makes the hospitals depend on government assistance programs such as Medicaid to supplement their workers' compensation.



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