Poor relations imperil cancer center project

Yale-New Haven Hospital’s plan to open a new cancer center by 2008 would appear uncontroversial: The new building should provide jobs, stimulate the local economy and provide a high level of cancer treatment. Yet enthusiasm for the project has been overshadowed by debate regarding the hospital’s relationship with its workers and neighbors.

Though many have welcomed the proposed center as an unprecedented investment in the treatment of cancer patients, various community groups have raised concerns ranging from the dearth of affordable housing in the area to the environmental impact of construction. Meanwhile, the hospital’s ongoing struggle with the Service Employees International Union’s efforts to unionize hospital employees has complicated the situation.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said the conflict provides an opportunity for the cancer center to create economic growth beyond the center itself.

“The expansion of the cancer center is an important thing, and I’m certainly supportive of it,” DeStefano said. “At the same time, there are collateral issues regarding the role of the hospital as a corporate institution in New Haven that various folks have brought up.”

One of those issues is the hospital’s conflict with the SEIU, which is currently running an ad campaign to stir public sentiment against the hospital’s treatment of its employees. SEIU spokesman Bill Meyerson said the SEIU does not oppose the cancer center, though the organization thinks improved worker conditions are important to the community.

But DeStefano said the labor issue may be important to the cancer center’s future.

“I’m going to guess that failure to resolve that is going to create a severe impairment to moving the cancer center forward,” DeStefano said.

A number of community concerns apart from the labor conflict have also come out in letters issued by concerned parties and in meetings between hospital officials and a number of neighborhood organizations. According to hospital spokesman Vin Petrini, the hospital has reached out to community interests by meeting with a dozen different groups.

Petrini said the hospital has a long history of supporting its community. In particular, he cited hundreds of thousands of dollars the hospital has recently spent on initiatives to benefit the area, supporting 125 community organizations as well as an affordable housing program.

“We think we’ve been able to demonstrate a vibrant community-relations program, one that clearly positions the hospital and the community together,” Petrini said. “Will we do more in the future? We’re always looking for ways to enhance our relationship with the community.”

But according to some community groups, the hospital is not doing enough. Following a Board of Aldermen resolution last summer that required major developments to include neighborhood consultation, a recently formed group called the Community Organized for Responsible Development, which has some ties with hospital labor, asked the hospital to open a dialogue with neighborhood interests.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Jacqueline James, who represents the hospital’s neighborhood, is spearheading a letter raising concerns about the hospital. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04, who represents most Yale students, said he plans to sign onto the letter.

“I think it would really benefit the hospital as well because it would lead to stronger relations in the community,” Healey said. “It’s a win-win. Clearly there are real issues in the hospital in terms of parking in the neighborhood, in terms of affordable housing, and the level to which the hospitals’ expansion has affected that.”

For the SEIU, unionizing the hospital’s employees is an element of the hospital’s responsibility to the community, particularly given the number of local residents Yale-New Haven employs. The SEIU is currently spending $100,000 a week on televised ads designed to convince the public that the hospital, which is publicly funded and tax exempt, mistreats its employees.

“It’s an opportunity for workers at the hospital to tell their stories to the public as to their substandard health benefits, wages and working conditions and their need for a union and the hospital’s efforts to stop them through interference and intimidation,” Meyerson said. “We think that the public ought to know that their tax money is going towards an institution where many employees don’t earn enough to afford health benefits for their children and therefore have to rely on welfare.”

According to Petrini, the SEIU’s ad campaign is divisive and misleading. Petrini said the hospital has long stood behind its offer of union representation through a National Labor Relations Board-supervised secret-ballot election. But Meyerson said the hospital is insisting on going through the NLRB because the organization does not adequately protect workers’ rights.

The mayor declined to take sides on the labor issue, saying only that a secret-ballot election should take place, a point the SEIU advocates. The hospital does not oppose a secret-ballot election, as long as it is run by the NLRB.

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