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Boston: Jewish labor groups support SEIU Local 1199's efforts to organize

BIDMC in heated battle with healthcare union
by Lorne Bell / The Jewish Advocate / Friday May 30 2008

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Marya Axner, center, director of the JLC New England Office, stands with other JLC and Workmen’s Circle members at a May 9 rally in Longwood to encourage greater healthcare worker membership in SEIU 1199. Hundreds attended and the Dropkick Murphys performed. [Photo courtesy of The Jewish Advocate]

Two weeks ago, members of the Jewish Labor Committee of New England and the Boston Workmen’s Circle gathered near the Longwood Medical Center to rally in support of local 1199, a division of the Service Employees International Union now organizing across Boston’s medical community. But at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the union and hospital CEO Paul Levy are accusing one another of using unscrupulous tactics to influence workers.
“There has been a very poor history on the part of [the hospital’s] management in dealing with workers who are organizing,” said Mike Fadel, executive vice president of 1199SEIU.
Fadel said that the union has fielded several complaints from Beth Israel Deaconess’ workers. In April, Anthony Patti, a former Beth Israel Deaconess maintenance employee, spoke out against the hospital in an SEIU advertisement in the Boston Herald.
“When our managers found out [that we were organizing], they hit us with a campaign of intimidation and misinformation,” wrote Patti. “They said if we voted to unionize they’d replace us with outside contractors. In my case, my director reminded me that my children wouldn't have insurance if I lost my job.”

Those risks are still a concern, according to “Mila,” a current medical practice assistant at Beth Israel Deaconess who asked not to be identified by her real name.
“I fear losing my job or being ousted,” she told the Advocate. “Paul Levy said he doesn’t want a union; that his workers are happy and he doesn’t feel we need it. That makes people hesitant and leery of talking [about organizing].”
Mila said many hospital workers are underpaid and overworked, and that a union would help them fight for better wages and more affordable health insurance.
Marya Axner, regional director of the Jewish Labor Committee of New England, agreed.
“A lot of people that work in [Boston’s] hospitals can’t afford healthcare,” Axner said. “Once they have a union, all types of opportunities -- better healthcare, better wages, dignity and respect -- will open up. But a lot of why the JLC supports hospital workers is because they have a right to have a union.”
That sentiment has led to a city-wide SEIU initiative to press for elections where workers would vote on whether or not they want to unionize. Hospital administrators are being asked to sign a "neutrality agreement," which would prohibit union-busting activities aimed at dissuading workers from voting in favor of the union. Levy has refused to sign the agreement and accused the union of using shady tactics to garner support.
“I pointed out the type of approach employed by the SEIU when seeking to organize workers in hospitals elsewhere in the country,” Levy wrote last July on his Web log, runningahospital.blogspot.com. “It consists of publicly denigrating the reputation of the targeted hospital, its senior management and its board of trustees in an attempt to put pressure on the hospital to agree to certain concessions in the union certification process.”
Levy referred to instances in which the SEIU has come out publicly against inconsistencies in Beth Israel Deaconess’ financial records. Last year, the union accused the hospital of over-billing the state for emergency room services. And in February, the union again criticized the hospital for including $11 million in bad debts in its charitable care figures. Fadel defended SEIU’s watchdog-like approach as part of its mission.
“Our union has been very active in healthcare reform, and as part of that we have significant concerns about making sure that resources are properly used,” he said. “Where there are fiscal questions, we are not shy at all about bringing those to light.”
But Jerry Berger, director of media relations for Beth Israel Deaconess, said the hospital’s financial records comply with all state and federal regulations. He also denied reports that administrators have intimidated workers in an attempt to dissuade them from organizing.
“[Such activities] are very specifically prohibited and against the law,” Berger said. “If anything were brought forward to us we would look at it carefully.”
Berger said that the hospital’s own code of conduct is sufficient, and reiterated Levy’s rejection of the neutrality agreement. Still, both Fadel and Berger agreed that working out a compromise is in the best interests of SEIU, the hospital and its patients.
“The ultimate goal here is to give workers a voice that they can exercise in a way that is consistent with their core values as caregivers, which are in many ways shared by the mission of the hospital,” said Fadel.