Univ. keeps low profile in unionization dispute

Thirteen months ago, Yale-New Haven Hospital and SEIU District 1199 showed no signs of reaching an agreement in their dispute over the hospital’s proposed cancer center and the ongoing attempt to organize a union for the hospital’s 1,800 employees. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. turned to Yale’s Bruce Alexander, vice president for New Haven and State Affairs, to mediate negotiations. By late March, the two sides had forged an agreement that would let the cancer center go forward in exchange for a commitment by the hospital that SEIU could hold a secret ballot unionization election.

But Yale’s magic touch has since worn off. The agreement fell apart before the year’s end as bitter accusations of misconduct flew from both sides. The election, scheduled for Dec. 20 and 21, was cancelled by the National Labor Relations Board after allegations that the hospital had inappropriately campaigned against unionization. But this time around, a Yale mediator may not be the answer — at least not any time soon.

Though the University has offered its help, neither side has taken up the offer, and some union activists said the coming months will determine if Alexander’s 2006 involvement marked the beginning of a shift in University-labor relations, or if it was merely an anomaly.

Before brokering the March 2006 agreement, Yale had taken a “hands-off” public approach to hospital unionization, Bill Meyerson, spokesman for District 1199, said. In 2002 and 2003, Locals 34 and 35, gearing up for negotiations for new labor contracts, included in their list of demands that the University recognize potential unionization at the hospital and among Yale graduate students. Though Levin stated that he did not oppose unionization at the hospital, he had no power to recognize the union.

Currently, no Yale administrator is playing a role similar to that of Alexander in 2006, though there have, thus far, been no public negotiations. Yet the University has not stayed completely out of the conflict either. Just one day after a private arbitrator ruled that the hospital’s violations enabled the union to call for an election postponement, University President Richard Levin released a statement expressing his dismay at the hospital’s actions, offering to assist the two sides in finding a solution.

Meyerson said Levin’s statement impressed the union.

“It was certainly an unprecedented and positive step in terms of [Yale’s] involvement,” he said.

More recently though, the University has been taken few public steps and, with three separate investigations into the dispute pending, Yale could do little to help broker an agreement, Local 34 President Laura Smith said.

“I think there’s a lot going on right now in working through the really horrific charges that stem from the actions that the hospital took against workers,” she said. “Things have a tendency to be in a bit of limbo right now.”

Even if negotiations were possible, it is unclear how easily Yale could approach the bargaining table. In late December, Local 35 President Bob Proto wrote an opinion piece in the New Haven Register speaking out against the Yale administrators who sit on the hospital Board of Trustees. He criticized their lack of an aggressive response to the hospital’s conduct in the weeks before the election.

At the time, Yale administrators said the article unfairly linked YNNH — which is the School of Medicine’s primary teaching hospital but is not owned by the University — with Yale. Days after the article was published, Ralph Craviso, Yale’s head of labor relations, said the piece limited Yale’s ability to become involved in any negotiations. The situation contrasted with the scenario in March 2006, when Alexander was an effective negotiator because both sides welcomed the help, he said. Nevertheless, Craviso said at the time, administrators and labor leaders planned to discuss the issue.

The only active role the University has played recently is through the members of the hospital’s Board of Trustees, Levin said Sunday. Levin, University Secretary Linda Lorimer and School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern are among the five University officials on the Board.

In early January, the trustees hired Stan Twardy, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor, to conduct an internal investigation into the hospital’s conduct. The decision came a month after the union filed complaints against the hospital, accusing it of holding mandatory meetings during work time that described potential disadvantages to organizing. The union said the meetings violated the elections agreement.

The hospital offered to sit down with the union in the weeks after the election was canceled, but the union refused, choosing to wait until the completion of other investigations into the hospital management’s role in the violations. The private arbitrator hired by both sides is still hearing testimony on more than 200 complaints filed against the hospital, and is not expected to issue any decisions this week.

The third investigation, opened by the NLRB after the union filed its request for the election to be canceled, is also expected to take weeks, if not months.

Despite Yale’s lack of decisive public action on the issue, the dispute between the University and unions may have already passed. Yesterday, Smith said she is confident the University will ultimately have a hand in any compromise.

“I don’t think that there’s any sense that [Yale] won’t be stepping up,” she said.

But to what extent, and through what administration, the University engages in the dispute during the coming weeks — continuing as a mediator or returning to a position as far from the conflict as possible — remains to be seen.

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