In an unorthodox move that shocked city and union leaders, Yale-New Haven Hospital announced Wednesday that it will file a petition for a secret ballot unionization election with the National Labor Relations Board, less than two weeks after SEIU 1199 withdrew its own election petition on the grounds that a fair vote would be impossible.
The announcement, which came just hours after an election principles agreement reached last March expired, was printed Wednesday in an advertisement in the New Haven Register. The open letter was written by hospital CEO Marna Borgstrom EPH ’79, who expressed regret for some of the hospital’s recent conduct and announced her intention to seek a NLRB-supervised secret ballot election.
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But city and union leaders said the letter was a hypocritical step backwards that has not restored their trust in the hospital. In addition, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said Borgstrom lied in her letter when she claimed not to know of the hospital’s missteps until December. He said the apology is a public relations ploy meant to bolster the hospital’s position in the days before an independent arbitrator rules on more than 200 complaints lodged against the it by the union.
The election was originally scheduled for Dec. 20 and 21, but it was canceled by the NLRB when the arbitrator found that the hospital violated the election agreement and federal labor law in its anti-union campaign. The hospital’s petition requests that the NLRB set a date for a new election.
“While it is an unusual move for an employer to call for an election, we think the opportunity to vote on this issue is critical to our employees,” Borgstrom wrote. “If the NLRB accepts the petition, it will assure that any election is held in an atmosphere free of improper conduct.”
In the letter, Borgstrom said she regretted certain hospital actions in the weeks leading up to the cancelled election. She cited in particular voluntary meetings about the union’s organizing efforts that “should not have occurred.” The arbitrator ruled in December that the meetings had been mandatory and thus violated the election agreement. Borgstrom also acknowledged the dissemination of improper training materials to mid-level managers and the spread of misleading information about the union, including its dues.
“We did not meet that standard of an [election], and I deeply regret it,” Borgstrom wrote, adding, “While we cannot turn back the clock and reverse these actions, we can look forward.”
But union spokesman Bill Meyerson said the letter is not a full account of the illegal actions the hospital undertook before the scheduled election and does nothing to change the damage that has already been done. He said SEIU has not yet determined exactly how it will respond to the hospital’s petition.
“We still have to figure all that out,” he said. “We certainly will fight.”
The hospital’s move leaves the union and hospital at an impasse, with SEIU still unwilling to settle for anything other than card check recognition — an alternative to a secret ballot election that unionizes a body once a majority of employees sign union cards. The hospital, for its part, is maintaining its workers’ right to vote on a union through secret ballot. Employer petitions for union elections are not common, but are even more rare in cases like this when a union has not yet been recognized by the employer, labor law experts said.
Although the Elections Principles Agreement between the hospital and the union expired Tuesday, the arbitrator is still set to rule on whether the hospital’s actions violated the agreement as well as federal labor law. The arbitrator herself was hired under the agreement, which was signed last March after months of negotiations led by DeStefano and Bruce Alexander, Yale’s vice president for New Haven and State Affairs.
While union leaders said they will respect whatever remedy the arbitrator proposes, hospital spokesman Vin Petrini did not rule out the possibility that the hospital would ignore the arbitrator’s ruling. Petrini said that the hospital would like to keep all legal options open, declining to comment on DeStefano’s accusation that the hospital set out to ignore the arbitrator from the beginning.
According to Borgstrom’s letter, the hospital has reassigned some senior leadership responsibilities, hired a new general counsel and reoriented managers to comply with federal regulations. She also said that for the “remainder of the agreement,” which expired yesterday, the hospital stopped holding meetings in which managers described the disadvantages of unionization.
Borgstrom said in her letter she only found out about the hospital’s violations in early December, but DeStefano said he knows that senior administrators, including Borgstrom and the hospital’s head of human resources, Edward Dowling, knew about the violations earlier and may have helped execute them.
DeStefano said the hospital’s conduct was some of the most egregious he has witnessed in his 14 years in office. He said he plans to put the full force of city government behind holding the hospital accountable for its transgressions and allowing a union election to come to a fair vote — if, he said, that is even a possibility now.
“Marna Borgstrom knew about this,” he said. “I have very little confidence in the truthfulness of hospital management.”
He also questioned the timing of the letter, calling it mere “campaign literature” that was released in an attempt to protect the hospital against what DeStefano thinks will be a “strongly negative view by the arbitrator of the hospital’s behavior of intimidation, coercion, and misrepresenting facts.”
He added that one of Borgstrom’s admissions — that workers were told by some managers that unions were linked with the Mafia — “offends” him personally as an Italian-American.
Petrini declined to respond directly to DeStefano’s allegation that the hospital plans to ignore the arbitrator’s decision. He said Borgstrom and Dowling did not know in advance about the coordinated efforts to sway workers away from the union.
“Obviously, we stand by what [Borgstrom] said in her ad,” Petrini said.
Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield said subpoenaing hospital administrators is a possibility at this point, although it is a power that the aldermen rarely use. Goldfield extended an invitation last month to Borgstrom to testify before the Board, but she declined.
“Something was seriously wrong in the way that they were conducting this campaign,” Goldfield said. “They are trying to put the best spin on it that they can, and it seems to me that they violated the agreement pretty egregiously.”
John Cotter, assistant regional director for the NLRB in its Hartford office, said Tuesday morning that the office had not yet received the hospital’s petition, but that he knew the hospital had been considering filing it. Petitions from employers are unusual, he said, but SEIU’s decision to withdraw its election request early last week was equally atypical.
The union, which says a fair election is no longer possible, could delay the hospital’s efforts to hold a secret ballot election by refiling the more than 200 charges of unfair labor practices that it withdrew last week along with its petition for an election. The union maintained that the NLRB’s enforcement arm is inadequate for protecting the rights of workers.
Yale President Richard Levin, who sits on the hospital’s Board of Trustees and has spoken out against using a card check procedure, has in the past played somewhat of a leading role in arbitrating the nine-year-old dispute between the union and the hospital. But he declined to comment on Borgstrom’s letter, a decision which Goldfield said was disappointing.
The hospital’s election petition — if allowed to go forward by the NLRB — could override whatever remedy the arbitrator proposes, said Fred Feinstein, former general counsel for the NLRB. The NLRB is not bound by the original election agreement reached last March, he said, but it generally has a policy of deference to arbitration. Feinstein said he does not know how the NLRB would respond in this unusual case.