Bowing to pressure from workers, the University of Maryland Medical Center has agreed to allow technical and support staff to vote on whether they want union representation.
The vote, expected in mid-September, will allow workers not only to choose whether they want a union, but which union, to bargain on their behalf for salaries, benefits and working conditions. The downtown hospital has identified 1,700 eligible workers out of its staff of more than 5,000.
Workers at several other area hospitals are represented by unions, but union and hospital officials said it would be the first vote in about two years at a Baltimore hospital.
Dr. Stephen C. Schimpff, the medical center's chief executive officer, said he doesn't believe that the hospital is required to hold the vote. But, he said, he would allow a majority of the workers to decide if they want a union or to deal directly with hospital management.
"The simple fact is that a number of employees have expressed a desire to have the vote," he said. "Although we hope they vote in favor of a direct relationship with management rather than through a third party, if they vote for a union, so be it."
Union officials said it's unclear what laws apply to the hospital, a quasi-public entity. It doesn't fall neatly under either the National Labor Relations Act, which covers union elections under private employers, or state laws that cover bargaining rights for public employees.
The Service Employees International Union, which represents 15,000 health care workers in Maryland and Washington, has been working to organize the hospital employees for months. Bob Moore, president of the union's Local 1199E-DC and its state council, called the vote a good step but questioned how the hospital arrived at the list of eligible workers.
He said he wants to meet with hospital officials to clarify who can vote and details of how the process will work. The union wants an impartial third party to run the vote under National Labor Relations Board guidelines.
"We think it's good that they are allowing the vote, but some problems remain," Moore said. "It's difficult when one side decides all the rules."
Union supporters picketed the hospital in June to press for the vote. Some workers may already be members of unions, but none has bargaining power.
To get on the election ballot, a union would have to show interest from at least 10 percent of the technical and support staff. The hospital sent letters to several unions, who have until July 31 to respond.
The hospital said eligible workers fall into similar job categories and they'll have the right to vote in an election over four days.