On the small screen, volume of unionization debate rises

Three New Haven television channels have recently been airing commercials featuring Carmen Bistrain, an elderly woman who the narrator says battled uterine cancer. But cancer was not all she was battling: The narrator also states that when Bistrain was unable to pay her bills in full, Yale-New Haven Hospital began witholding a portion of her paycheck after they took her to court for her failure to pay.

But Yale-New Haven officials said that not only are its collection policies fair and consistent with those of hospitals around the country, but that Bistrain did not even have cancer.

This television ad is just one in a series aired by the Service Employees International Union to garner community support. The SEIU, which has launched unionization efforts at hospitals nationwide, has been trying to form a hospital employee union for service workers at Yale-New Haven for over seven years, but the debate rages just as hotly today as it did when it began. Each week, the SEIU’s television ads costs the organization around $100,000 of national members’ dues — an amount indicative of the intensity of their current advertising campaign.

In recent months, both the SEIU and Yale-New Haven have launched aggressive campaigns that have garnered national press, with the SEIU attacking Yale-New Haven’s reputation and promoting unionization, and the hospital defending itself while biting back at what it claims are SEIU lies. Plans for a new $430 million cancer center have also recently been drawn into the debate, with the SEIU’s community allies lobbying to block approval of the plan, which they say could have negative impacts on the neighborhood. Meanwhile the Yale-New Haven employees themselves are divided on the issue of unionization, as well as whether a vote ought to be administered by the National Labor Relations Board.

Soon after the hospital announced plans for the cancer center, the SEIU launched its latest media campaign attacking the hospital. Currently there are two series of commercials running: one features hospital employees voicing their complaints about treatment at the hospital; the other features patients who the SEIU claims were mistreated by the hospital’s billing practices.

In one ad, hospital worker Minnie Dacosta says, “We need a union at the hospital because we need to be treated fair and equal. We need to have better benefits.” Her co-worker, Monica Osborn, then says, “I know that I need a union for myself, but not only for myself, but also for my co-workers.”

SEIU representative William Meyerson said the purpose of the ads is to educate the public about working conditions at the hospital, where he said some workers are paid so little they must take more than one job and cannot afford the hospital’s healthcare plan for their children.

“The majority of the service workers at the hospital want a union to improve their lives,” Meyerson said.

Dr. Peter Herbert, chief of staff at the hospital, said the ads are a reflection of how much national support is currently being poured into the unionization effort at Yale-New Haven.

“I think the hospital has been identified as a major target [of the SEIU],” Herbert said.

The SEIU’s second series of ads about the hospital’s billing practices have proven more inflammatory due to hospital insistence that the information presented in the ads is false. Yale-New Haven Vice President William Gedge said the hospital’s collection policies are almost identical to the policies of hospitals all over the country.

The SEIU filed a lawsuit against the hospital over billing practices concerning indigent patients that was eventually dismissed by the Connecticut Superior Court last November.

The hospital’s counter-campaign, “The Truth Matters,” targets each specific ad and pinpoints statements the hospital claims are false.

One of the SEIU ads targeted by the hospital features Nilda Ortiz, an elderly woman who says she was a cancer patient who could not pay her $1,900 bill and was subsequently sued by the hospital. The hospital maintains that Ortiz’s bill was not for cancer treatments and that the debt was forgiven as soon as the patient filled out a free care application.

“The individual didn’t have cancer. That’s totally false,” Gedge said. “The individual had an elective procedure not covered by Medicaid. If Medicaid believes that a procedure is not medically necessary, it won’t cover it, but Medicaid would cover cancer.”

Yale-New Haven spokesman Vin Petrini said he believes the ads have not done much to further the SEIU’s cause.

“When a union with a very self-interested agenda makes false claims about a hospital fully committed to serving a community, it’s tragic,” Petrini said. “I think they’re very divisive. It’s sad that the unions resorted to these types of tactics.”

But many hospital employees disagree with Petrini’s view, including those people who have been involved in making the union’s commercials. Towanna Marks, a registrar in medical oncology, has been active with the SEIU and appeared in advertisements last winter.

“I did a commercial around Christmas time to let my fellow co-workers know there was no need to be intimidated by the hospital,” Marks said.

Some Yale-New Haven employees who said they have been harassed by the union said they are angry that their co-workers are trying to speak for them.

Barbara Farmer, a secretary in patient services who has been at Yale-New Haven for 35 years, said she opposes the idea of paying dues to a union that will ultimately go to support national union efforts. She said she also supports the hospital because of the superior cancer care she recently received at Yale-New Haven.

“I object the taking of my money and spending it, and I don’t have any input into it,” Farmer said. “I have spoken with people who believe that they should unionize, but I also know those people to be not hard workers who really don’t come to work that much and feel they need someone to defend them.”

Farmer said she believes there is currently not enough support among hospital workers to pass a unionization vote. As someone who has had SEIU representatives come to her house and approach her on the street in attempt to intimidate her into supporting a union, Farmer said she refuses to even speak with SEIU supporters.

But, as with the highly polarized disputes over the ad campaign and the cancer center, the other side is equally vociferous. Lynn Eimutis, a registrar in the physical therapy department, said she believes a vote taken now would lead to the creation of a union.

Getting the community involved with the unionization efforts is a strategy that has proven itself effective, said Yale history professor Jennifer Klein, who specializes in labor and economic movements. By informing the community of the hospital’s practices in advertisements, Klein said, supporters of unionization gain essential support.

“The labor movement is successful when it is a part of broader community organizing efforts, when union and community groups are working together on the issues of healthcare, housing and economic justice, that are issues that absolutely concern everyone in the community,” Klein said. “There’s no reason to separate off unionization from broader efforts at economic justice and economic security.”

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