More than half a dozen New Haven clergymen gathered in front of City Hall on Monday alleging that Yale-New Haven Hospital was intimidating workers into opposing a possible union, but the momentum soon shifted away from pro-union organizers as the Board of Aldermen weighed in on the issue.
The local religious leaders alleged that the hospital had violated the terms of an April agreement designed to ensure a clean up-or-down vote of hospital employees as to whether SEIU District 1199 can organize a workers’ union. The clergy claimed that circulation of anti-union literature and improper meetings in recent weeks has caused unrest and growing anxiety among hospital workers, some of whom are in their congregations. Yale-New Haven Hospital denied those claims, raising the possibility that the clergy outcry itself may have violated the agreement.
As a result of the protests and at the urging of Board of Aldermen president Carl Goldfield, who met with the clergy Monday morning along with Mayor John DeStefano Jr., the Board of Aldermen adopted a resolution at its regular meeting Monday night that expressed “concern” over allegations that the agreement has been violated. Goldfield said that prior to the meeting he had hoped his colleagues would condemn the hospital for its alleged violations, but evidence presented by other aldermen at the meeting changed the tone of the debate.
The Board ultimately endorsed a neutral stance on the matter, expressing its dissatisfaction with any side that violated the “letter and spirit” of the agreement, which stipulates that “any discussion of union representation [must] be factual and free from any threat, coercion or intimidation.”
“A couple of things have happened that have raised some eyebrows and concerns,” clergy spokesman Abraham Hernandez said, though he declined to offer any documented evidence. “We’re sensing that some employees are feeling intimidated and that disparaging literature and mandatory meetings are causing stress for them.”
But hospital spokesman Vin Petrini said the administration has not once violated the agreement, and that he was disappointed by Monday’s developments.
“The hospital is dedicated to abiding by the agreement, which ensures a fair process and a right [for workers] to voice their opinions,” he said. “We’ve run a clean and truthful campaign.”
He also said that the fact that the protest was led by clergy — rather than the designated arbitrator — raises the question of whether pro-union workers violated the agreement on Monday by using the clergy as a third party to sway workers to their side. The clergy called for a day of prayer on Sunday to ensure a fair vote.
“This well may constitute a breach of the agreement itself,” Petrini said.
The workers themselves do not have a spotless record on refraining from attempting to coerce their colleagues. Legal documents indicate that last week, union organizer Dale Lucas engaged in “increasingly threatening behavior” on several occasions in an attempt to coerce a hospital employee to vote in favor of the union. Lucas was barred from the hospital premises, and an arbitrator ordered the organizers to send apology letters to potentially affected hospital workers.
Others said Monday that they have witnessed pro-union organizers take similar action, from making persistent home phone calls to wedging their feet in office doorways until a worker lets them inside. But all parties — aldermen, clergy and hospital workers — agreed that the top priority is ensuring that the vote takes place in a fair atmosphere where workers can make up their own minds.
“Up until a few days ago, it sounded like everybody was happy with the other sides’ behavior, and then in the last couple of days, this all happened,” Goldfield said.
Rather than assign blame, he said, he wants to look forward to ensure the “community doesn’t get ripped apart” in the days leading up to the Dec. 20 and 21 vote, which will poll about 1,800 workers.
Derek Slap, spokesman for DeStefano, said the mayor was concerned after sitting down with the clergy but is confident that hospital president Marna Borgstrom will meet with the religious leaders in a timely fashion.
After the Monday evening meeting, Ward 18 Alderwoman Arlene DePino said she had heard that some workers recently approached a hospital receptionist at work in an attempt to intimidate her into voting for the union while other patients were in the room.
“It’s a clear violation of the agreement,” she said.
At the press conference Monday morning, Rev. Jose Champagne said the clergy’s intention is for the election to be “transparent, just and not influenced by either the hospital or the union.”
The National Labor Relations Board will supervise the vote, and as of Monday evening, NLRB Asst. Director John Cotter said nobody had filed charges claiming that the vote should not take place due to coercion or other illegalities. He said only charges filed directly with NLRB can invalidate the election.