Yale New Haven Hospital employee Sharmont Little may work at the state’s largest hospital, but he does not receive health insurance. To make ends meet on a $13.44 hourly wage, Little used to work 72 hours a week, but his hours were cut to 24 when his manager discovered he supported the drive to unionize the hospital, he said.
Personal anecdotes dominated a “Worker’s Tea” discussion at the Afro-American Cultural Center Wednesday night, attended by more than 50 students and community members. Sponsored by a coalition of groups including the Undergraduate Organizing Committee and the Yale NAACP, the event allowed participants to ask two hospital workers questions on topics ranging from the desirability of unionization to their experiences with hospital management.
The Worker’s Tea came after SEIU 1199’s decision Monday to cancel a petition for an election to organize the hospital’s workers. The cancellation of the unionization vote comes at a low point in hospital-labor relations. The hospital had offered to sit down with the union after a December union election was cancelled due to allegations that the hospital illegally campaigned against the union. The union refused the meeting, choosing to wait until the completion of other investigations into the hospital management’s role in the violations. Now, the union has said that it is no longer willing to settle for anything less than card-check neutrality, while the hospital maintains that its workers have the right to have a secret-ballot vote on a union.
Referencing the alleged meetings, hospital employees Little and Virginia Taylor said labor relations laws need to be changed to prevent coercion by managers. This proposal was couched within descriptions of situations in which managers provided workers with false information about unions or put them in situations in which they could be identified as pro-union.
It would not be a problem to be identified as a union supporter, a worker sitting in the audience said, except that hospital managers control people’s paychecks. Before his pro-union stance became public, Little said, his manager would ask him to work overtime, to the point where he worked 72 hours every week. Now, he is only allowed to work 24 hours a week.
“The unfortunate and the challenging thing is that when the law is violated, when folks are coerced or threatened or intimidated, we do have to prove that it actually took place,” Little said. “So you have to find somebody, who is already is dependent upon their boss for their salary.”
Even before his working hours declined, Little’s health care package was set at the level allotted to employees who are formally hired to work 24 hours a week. But the health care plan was so expensive that it would have consumed his entire paycheck, Little said. His children are currently insured under the HUSKY medical plan — a state-funded healthcare program for children of low and mid-income families.
“The best way to hurt people who don’t have anything is to take more from them,” Little said. “You cripple them like that.”
Little said complaints of worker intimidation implicate the hospital’s executive management, not just mid-level managers. In YNHH’s psychiatric hospital, he said, anti-union meetings were held during the day by an immediate subordinate of Marna Borgstrom, the hospital’s chief executive officer. Little said this proves Borgstrom was involved in the intimidation.
“You’re going to tell me your right hand man that reports directly to you 2 or 3 times out of the day for 2 weeks straight, and you have absolutely no idea he’s gone?” He said, “And you’re going to put out a blanket statement in a letter ‘We apologize if we frightened you in any way. I have no idea of this situation.’ That shows how powerful they think they are.”
SEIU 1199 organizer Rob Baril said citizens must take action in order to allow workers to continue to fight for unionization. Workers also stressed that Yale, the hospital and the larger New Haven community are all intertwined, and students should strive to improve the city they live in.
UOC member Aaron Littman said that because of Yale President Richard Levin’s position on the hospital’s Board of Directors, Yale students are in an especially advantageous position to advocate for the rights of pro-union workers at the hospital.
“Yale students should care about how our university interacts with the city around it … if there’s outrage on the campus, Levin has to respond to it, and if Levin responds to it, the hospital has to respond.”