40 workers seeking union picket UM Medical Center; Organizing drive aims to unionize 1,700 at semi-public UMMS; Labor relations


About 40 union supporters picketed for an hour at midday outside the University of Maryland Medical Center, continuing a public campaign to pressure hospital management to let workers vote on whether they want union representation.

As a quasi-public entity, with board members appointed by the governor, the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) is not clearly covered by either the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union elections of private employers, or by state laws governing bargaining rights for public employees.

Without quick recourse to law to determine when and how the election would be held, the union is trying to generate support to get management to agree to quick balloting. It has urged the community to send postcards to state officials and has enlisted support from clergy.

"The problem is that legally it's a complete gray area," said Jeff Cappella, an organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). "We're saying everybody has the right to a free election without being pressured, and we want management to agree."

Dr. Stephen C. Schimpff, chief executive officer of the medical center, said yesterday, "We have not made a decision as to whether to have an election, but we will do so relatively soon."

SEIU's Local 1199E-DC is seeking to represent 1,700 nursing aides, technicians and dietary workers at the downtown hospital. If they are successful, it would represent a considerable success for organized labor, which has turned its attention to health workers recently.

Last year, SEIU won bargaining rights for more hospital workers than it had in the previous five years combined, according to Lane Windham, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO.

Cappella said SEIU represents workers at several other Baltimore hospitals, including Johns Hopkins, but has not won bargaining rights at a Baltimore hospital in several decades.

Ernest R. Grecco, president of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council of AFL-CIO unions, said winning an election for a bargaining unit of 1,700 in Baltimore "isn't unheard of, but it would certainly be substantial. We'd love to bring them into our family."

Bessie Bailey, a nurses' assistant in the neonate intensive care unit, and a 25-year veteran at the hospital, said workers were interested in union organization not just for better pay, but for job security. "We don't get respect from management," she said, "because we don't have a voice."

Sweetie Hawkins, a radiology technician who, like Bailey, is a member of the SEIU's organizing committee, said some workers felt intimidated by management from union participation.

Schimpff, the medical center's CEO, said management did meet regularly with small groups of employees to get suggestions and feedback. "[But] they're implying we're trying to meet with people to intimidate them. We meet with them because that's our job."

He said management was "not antiunion, but we think it's not appropriate in a health care environment." He said it was "very disappointing" that union supporters chanted "Let us vote!" in the hospital's entrance atrium recently, which was "very disturbing to the patients."

In addition to whether there should be a vote, Schimpff said management was also considering which unions should be on the ballot. He said some employees are already members of public employee unions, although those unions do not have bargaining rights. He also said there had been recent organizing efforts at the hospital by the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

Jeff Miller, CWA's communications director, said his union had attempted to organize nurses and other "professional employees" at the medical center, only to wind up charging the health system with an unfair labor practice. The federal labor board declined to consider the charge because UMMS was not a private employer. He said CWA's organizing efforts at UMMS were not active, and "We're not standing in the way at all" of SEIU efforts to organize a different group of employees.

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