Hospital workers rally for unionization rights



More than 1,000 union members and supporters called on Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital to settle contracts and respect hospital workers’ right to unionize during a rally on the medical school campus Tuesday.

The rally, which focused on health-care benefits and hospital workers, drew together many striking workers and graduate students during the second day of a weeklong strike. Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, and Dennis Rivera, the president of SEIU District 1199 in New York City, spoke during the rally, criticizing Yale’s history of labor relations.

The events Tuesday took place as part of the “health care” theme adopted by the four striking groups –locals 34 and 35, which represent Yale’s clerical, technical, service and maintenance workers; the Graduate Employees and Students Organization; and Service Employees International Union District 1199, which represents 150 dietary workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Union supporters waved flags and jeered at hospital officials watching the rally from the windows of Yale-New Haven Hospital. Local 34 President Laura Smith said Yale President Richard Levin and other Yale administrators underestimated union support when they predicted that the strike would collapse.

“We’re here to tell them, tell those people on the roof, you’re wrong,” she said.

Hospital spokeswoman Katie Krauss said approximately 145 hospital food service workers participated in the walkout. She said the hospital had transferred duties to other hospital employees and experienced no disruption in maintaining food service operations.

“It’s a small enough group that it’s easy for us to pitch in with other employees,” she said.

District 1199, which is closely aligned with locals 34 and 35, has been negotiating new contracts with the hospital for more than two years. The union’s effort to organize about 1,800 other hospital workers is a major point of contention in the current round of contract talks.

At the rally Tuesday, Stern said the lessons Yale teaches in its classrooms are not reflected in the University’s actions.

“Yale is at the bottom of the class when it comes to labor relations. I say to Yale, practice what you teach,” he said. “It’s time to come out of the cellar of class warfare of the 20th century and join the 21st century.”

Rivera said news of the Yale strike made the front page of The New York Times metro section on Tuesday.

“They were saying Yale has the worst record of any university in the United States in dealing with workers,” he said.

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said the excitement of the workers overcame the frigid temperatures.

“Are you cooking?” DeStefano said. “In New Haven and in America, we believe in choice, the right to choose a union.”

Throughout the rally, union supporters carried large cardboard symbols representing union jobs, including a spatula, a wrench and a pencil. Adam Patton, an organizer for Local 34, carried a large cardboard mop throughout the rally.

“I’m helping to carry the mop of justice, as I like to call it,” Patton said.

Zach Zobrist, a District 1199 member from Pittsburgh, said he came to New Haven to support the workers’ cause.

“This is a unique opportunity for several unions to work together,” he said. “Really it’s a historic opportunity. Labor’s been beaten up, the community’s fighting back, and that’s why I’m here.”

Michelle McNeil, a hospital food service worker since 1986, said she was confident that the hospital employees would ultimately achieve their goals.

“I think we’re going to win this,” she said. “I feel victory in the air. I smell it.”

Krauss said she did not believe hospital employees were dissatisfied with their contracts.

“It’s not about what we’re offering in the contract,” she said. “It’s about the local unions banding together and increasing membership at both places. I think to some extent our food service workers are being used as pawns by the union leadership.”

Hospital employees will continue striking along with members of locals 34 and 35 and GESO through Friday.

— Staff reporter Will Sullivan contributed to this story.

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