Union election postponed at Yale-New Haven Hospital

Weeks of mounting tensions involving public allegations of misconduct and violations of federal law culminated Wednesday night in a decision by a private arbitrator to postpone Yale-New Haven Hospital’s long-awaited union election.

The election, originally scheduled for next week, would have decided if the hospital’s 1,800 employees will join the Service Employees International Union, which has been attempting to unionize Yale-New Haven workers for nine years. After hearing union complaints last week, private arbitrator Margaret Kern decided Yale-New Haven acted illegally, but hospital officials denied any wrongdoing and urged a timely rescheduling of the election.

In a hearing last week with Kern, representatives from District 1199 of the SEIU claimed that Yale-New Haven authorized managerial staff to hold mandatory meetings during working hours in which supervisors discussed the drawbacks of unionization, such as possible pay cuts and lost jobs. With Kern’s permission, the SEIU filed a motion with the National Labor Relations Board to postpone the union election in lieu of the allegations of misconduct. The NLRB subsequently granted the motion.

SEIU communications director Bill Myerson said the alleged mandatory meetings violated election procedures and federal law.

“The activity that led to these violations and this environment would not allow a free and fair election to take place,” he said. “The hospital violated the agreement, violated the law as well as the [integrity of the] process itself.”

Kern’s ruling cites evidence and testimony that managerial staff convened workers for mandatory meetings in which hospital staff business was discussed. These mandatory meetings were then followed by voluntary meetings about the unions, for which supervisors announced that workers were free to stay or go.

Kern, who could not be reached for comment Thursday night, said in the ruling that the voluntary nature of the hospital meetings was compromised because employees would be labeled as being “pro-union” if they were to leave the meetings.

While hospital spokesman Vin Petrini said voluntary meetings were a long-standing practice at the hospital, he added that their scheduling immediately after required meetings in recent weeks was a mistake.

“When we learned of it we immediately asked managers to stop scheduling them that way and asked that voluntary meetings be held outside hospital time,” he said.

Kern’s ruling comes after weeks of public allegations of both pro- and anti-union worker intimidation, ending a relatively peaceful nine-month period in an otherwise conflict-ridden relationship between the hospital and the union.

Local 35 President Bob Proto released a press release Thursday urging investigation into the role of Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern and University President Richard Levin, both of whom sit on the hospital’s Board of Trustees, in approving the hospital meetings, suggesting that the two Yale administrators must have known about the misconduct.

But Levin said he called for the immediate cessation of the hospital staff meetings when he learned of them last week and was disappointed by the news of the hospital’s violations of its agreement with SEIU.

“I am dismayed by the recent actions of the hospital that violated the letter and spirit of its agreement,” he said. “I have consistently urged hospital management to abide by its terms. The leaders of our local unions also know we have made efforts to ensure compliance.”

Alpern said the University would like to see a legitimate union election take place sometime in the near future.

“From the University’s point of view we would like to see a fair election and we’d like to see it as soon as possible with both the hospital and the union feeling they had their say and had their day to get the vote out,” he said.

But Myerson said more details about the hospital staff’s conduct are necessary before discussion about rescheduling can take place.

“We need a comprehensive disclosure of how this happened,” he said. “We need to know what is the depth and scope of these violations, who was involved, who gave the orders. [T]here needs to be a bright line shined on the activities of the hospital in order to move forward.”

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. brokered a deal between Yale-New Haven and SEIU last March in which the Yale-New Haven cancer center was approved by the Board of Aldermen with the understanding that the hospital and union would agree to a set of election procedures, and select a neutral arbitrator to settle disputes.

–Kate Aitken contributed reporting.

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