Hospital unionization dispute escalates

The divide between Yale-New Haven Hospital and the union seeking to organize 1,800 of its employees continues to grow, as union and hospital officials show no signs of reaching an agreement within the upcoming weeks.

The hospital’s union election had been postponed from last week by the National Labor Relations Board following a report that showed the hospital had acted illegally in campaigning against the union. The election will likely not be rescheduled until two investigations into the hospital’s recent alleged misconduct are complete, which will probably not happen within the next month.

Margaret Kern, a private arbitrator hired by the hospital and union, will hold hearings in early January to hear testimony about the more than 200 individual complaints workers have lodged against the hospital. Those grievances are separate from the major complaint, filed by the union on Dec. 6, that ultimately led to the election’s postponement.

City and community leaders have continued to weigh in on the conflict. The New Haven Board of Aldermen condemned the hospital’s actions Monday night, and expects to hear testimony from officials to explain violations which some aldermen perceive to have been planned by the administration. And at a Dec. 14 press conference, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. called for changes in the structure of the unionization vote and reforms in the hospital’s board of trustees.

In a report released last week, Kern stated that managerial staff at Yale-New Haven had convened mandatory meetings to discuss hospital business, but would follow those meetings with voluntary meetings to discuss unionization. Kern found that those voluntary meeting were compromised because any employee who left would be automatically labeled “pro-union.”

Yale-New Haven has offered to sit down with the Service Employees International Union to help resolve the tensions, hospital spokesman Vin Petrini said, but SEIU has declined.

SEIU communications director Bill Meyerson said the union will not discuss a settlement until it better understands who in the hospital administration knew about or ordered allegedly mandatory meetings held during work hours that were anti-union and possibly violated federal law.

“We expect as a number of parties investigate, we’ll get a better idea of what happened and who allowed it to happen,” he said.

In addition to delaying the scheduled election, the union complaint filed with the NLRB has led the Board to open an investigation. John Cotter, assistant regional director for the NLRB, said the Board is not taking any steps to reschedule the election until after an investigation is complete, as is standard practice.

How long the investigation will take is unclear.

“It’s hard to tell in a case like this,” Cotter said. “Are we going to have three witnesses or 300?”

He said a typical investigation would be complete by the end of January, but a case of this scope — including the independent individuals who are starting to file complaints with the NLRB in addition to the union complaint — could take much longer. After the investigation phase is complete, the Board will seek the hospital’s response before taking further action. The NLRB has sole authority to reschedule an election, though so far only the union charges are preventing it from doing so. Cotter said that if the union withdraws the complaint or settles with the hospital, an election could be rescheduled earlier than February.

But the pending investigations are not the only motivation behind the union’s reluctance to sit down with the hospital, Meyerson said.

“There’s been no admission of wrongdoing [by Yale-New Haven],” he said.

Petrini said that in retrospect the meetings some managers called should not have been held, but that they occurred during an intense period of time in the week after the NLRB set the election date on Nov. 28. He said managers held them as a way to address questions about the union from their employees. There was no systematic directive from the hospital administration to hold such meetings, Petrini said, and once administrators found out about the meetings, managers were told not to continue scheduling them immediately after mandatory staff meetings.

The Board of Aldermen plans to have hospital officials appear before it in early January to discuss the meetings, Board President Carl Goldfield said. The Board passed a resolution denouncing the hospital’s actions, and a second resolution asking administrators testify was referred to a committee.

Goldfield said the hospital violations seem to have been planned from above, and he wants administrators to explain themselves. Though there have been some complaints against union organizers, Goldfield said the hospital’s misconduct was more jarring.

“I don’t think you saw the same sort of mass violations [with the unions],” he said.

The hospital is overseen by a Board of Trustees, including Yale President Richard Levin, who appointed one quarter of the Board’s seats. Goldfield said he would also want to hear from the trustees.

DeStefano called for reforms to the Board of Trustees, saying it does not represent the public. He has asked the New Haven delegation to the state legislature to investigate how the board’s structure could be changed, mayoral spokesman Derek Slap said.

DeStefano also called for a “card-check” election, in which a union can represent workers once at least 50 percent of the employees sign union cards — a less stringent requirement than a secret ballot election.

Though DeStefano was instrumental in bringing the two sides to an agreement last spring, Slap said the mayor will no longer be involved in mediating between the hospital and union due to Yale-New Haven’s actions.

“It’s difficult to do business with an organization that breaks a trust,” Slap said.

SEIU District 1199 has been attempting to represent workers at Yale-New Haven for nine years. Tensions between the union and hospital eased last March when the two settled on an NLRB-supervised secret ballot election. The agreement, brokered by DeStefano and Yale Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander, was part of a broader package that led the Board of Aldermen to approve construction of YNNH’s $430 million cancer center.

SEIU already represents 140 food service employees at the hospital, and has been seeking to represent 1,800 additional workers, including nursing assistants, housekeepers and clerical employees.

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