Levin stays out of hospital dispute

While the controversy over unionization at Yale-New Haven Hospital has drawn extensive comment from hospital administrators, union leaders, City Hall and Yale student groups, one key player has remained conspicuously absent from the fray: University President Richard Levin.

Although the hospital and the University are completely separate entities, Levin sits on the hospital’s governing board and has the power to appoint five of the hospital’s 19 trustees. But while tension between the hospital and union organizers continues to escalate, Levin has stayed almost completely silent, maintaining that the University’s role in the conflict is to foster constructive discussion between the two sides.

At Beinecke Plaza on Wednesday, students protest alleged anti-union activities by Yale-New Haven Hospital administrators and President Richard Levin’s silence on the issue.
Ming-Yee Lin
At Beinecke Plaza on Wednesday, students protest alleged anti-union activities by Yale-New Haven Hospital administrators and President Richard Levin’s silence on the issue.

Levin has rarely spoken publicly about the dispute, other than criticizing the hospital in a brief statement in December and expressing reservations about the fairness of card-check elections — a unionization process advocated by SEIU 1199, the union seeking to organize Yale-New Haven workers.

Union leaders and city politicians have expressed disappointment over Levin’s silence, especially given the controversy over an open letter written by hospital Chief Executive Officer Marna Borgstrom EPH ’79. The letter, printed in the New Haven Register on Wednesday, expressed regret for some of the hospital’s recent conduct and petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a secret ballot unionization vote.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and others have said Borgstrom openly lied in that letter — in which she said she did not know of the hospital’s anti-union actions until December — and that the letter was nothing more than a public relations move. Levin declined to comment on the situation Wednesday night, drawing criticism from Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield.

“I’m disappointed because it sounded like [Levin] understood … that it’s essential for the health of the University and the health of the hospital that we have a constructive relationship based on trust,” Goldfield said. “I hope that he would use the weight he has as Yale’s president to kind of push that relationship forward and tell the hospital, ‘You did a bad thing and you need to correct your behavior.’”

But Levin said he and other University officials are not primary players in the negotiations and that Yale views itself as a vehicle for brokering discussion between the two sides. The University is trying to ensure that the interests of both sides are protected, he said.

“I’m in close touch with principals to this conversation,” he said. “I’m not trying to substitute my own role for that of hospital leadership or union leadership or that of the mayor.”

In March 2006, Levin and Bruce Alexander, Yale’s vice president of New Haven and State Affairs, brokered a neutrality agreement between the two sides that allowed construction on the hospital’s $430 million cancer center to go forward last year. The agreement expired Wednesday.

Given the control that the Yale administration has over the hospital’s board, students and labor leaders have urged Levin to publicly criticize the actions of the hospital’s administration. Levin’s silence could end up hurting the University because many people believe the hospital is a part of Yale, said Adrienne Eaton, professor of labor studies at Rutgers University.

But despite having the power to appoint board members, Yale officials have little authority over the hospital administration, former School of Medicine Dean Gerard Burrow MED ’58 said.

“The University never saw that it could really change what the hospital was doing,” he said.

The five Yale-appointed members of the hospital’s board include three administrators — Levin, University Secretary Linda Lorimer and School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern — as well as former Law School Associate Dean James Thomas LAW ’64 and philanthropist Marvin Lender. Even though they sit on the hospital’s board because of its relationship with the University, several board members said the Yale affiliates do not necessarily represent Yale’s interests on the board and do not always vote as a bloc.

But though the Yale contingent does not always vote as one, board chairman Joseph Crespo said, there are not many disagreements between board members.

“There’s a strong attempt to reach a consensus,” he said.

Thomas said in an interview Wednesday that the board as a whole stands behind Borgstrom. Although Levin declined to comment, Thomas said the board also supports Borgstrom’s letter.

“Truth be known, we could fight back much more vigorously than we have, but [Borgstrom] hasn’t wanted to do that,” he said. “Running a hospital is not an easy proposition these days.”

—Steven Siegel contributed reporting.

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