Workers must be focus of union debate

Last March, an exultant Yale-New Haven Hospital president stood in City Hall cheering alongside the mayor as they announced a settlement to the political impasse surrounding the hospital’s proposed cancer center.

Fast-forward 11 months. A cornerstone of the supposedly “win-win-win” settlement collapsed Monday, when the union trying to represent the hospital’s 1,800 workers formally announced it would not hold the organizing election allowed for by the settlement. An illegally intimidating anti-union campaign by hospital management, the union argued, barred the possibility of legitimate elections.

The straw that broke the election was a series of training documents that allegedly show that hospital instructed its managers to hold mandatory anti-union elections and spread anti-union information in violation of the agreement, as well as federal labor law.

But the documents, uncovered during a neutral arbitration process agreed to by both sides, are not yet public, and so any specifics about the hospital’s actions remain unknowns looming over any discussion of the collapse of last March’s agreement. What instructions were managers given? How systematic were the anti-union activities? And, most importantly, who issued the apparently illegal training orders?

What facts are known, though, do not make the hospital look particularly good. The independent arbitrator found that managers had broken the law by holding meetings during work hours, and University President Richard Levin, after the initial postponement of the election was announced last December, issued a statement criticizing the hospital’s actions.

The sheer number of unknowns makes it difficult to know in what way exactly the hospital erred. Hospital representatives argue that the illegal meetings were isolated incidents, not parts of a pattern. What is clear, though, is that the hospital violated did not act in good faith to uphold the agreement it signed nearly a year ago, an agreement which was designed to let them procede in building the then-contested cancer center.

But as the he-said, she-said arbitration process continues, it is important not to lose focus on those for whom the election matters most: the 1,800 workers at Yale-New Haven whose votes were to have been counted. The legacy of this fight will not be whether the union or the hospital wins, but whether the hospital’s workers benefit or lose out under the final settlement. The issue of unionization, though unavoidably politicized, is intensely personal for those 1,800.

The solution to this debacle must reflect that what matters most are the interests of the workers. Just as the hospital should not intimidate them into changing their votes, neither should the unions advocate for a card-check neutrality agreement with the intention of hassling workers to sign cards. Respect and good faith have been absent in this entire debate. It’s time to forget the politics and focus on whose interests matter here. Not SEIU’s. Not Marna Borgstrom’s. Just those of the 1,800 workers now caught in the crossfire.

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