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About 200 protesters gathered in front of Yale-New Haven Hospital yesterday, waving banners and chanting, to protest changes in cafeteria hours that will affect dining service workers employed by the hospital.

Yale-New Haven Hospital workers and union leaders said these changes may lead to layoffs or reductions in working hours. But hospital representatives attributed yesterday’s rally to the Service Employees International Union District 1199’s ongoing drive to unionize 1,800 workers at the hospital.

The rally comes amidst proposed changes to the working hours of dining service workers. The current hours of the cafeteria are from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Starting in March, the hospital cafeteria will operate continuously from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Yale-New Haven Hospital spokesman Vincent Petrini said. He said the new hours neither reduce the total operating hours of the cafeteria nor affect the total working hours of employees, but may shift the work schedules of approximately 40 workers.

“You just shifted people’s lives around,” said Michele McNeil, a hospital food service worker who attended the rally.

Furthermore, hospital workers and union leaders maintain that the hospital does in fact plan to lay off dining service workers or reduce their working hours.

“What this is about is the latest attack on the rights of workers at Yale, where the hospital management is eliminating 140 hours, translating into three and a half full-time positions,” District 1199 union spokesman Bill Meyerson said. “They are a wealthy hospital, the best in the state. There is no reason they need to be cutting back.”

District 1199 represents about 140 dietary workers at the hospital.

Hospital representatives said they do not plan to carry out any layoffs or reduce workers’ hours.

“First and foremost — contrary to what’s been purported by the media — there are no layoffs associated with this decision, and no employees will have their hours reduced. In fact, we just posted some [40 hour] jobs and are actually looking to hire someone,” Petrini said.

Union leaders said they disagree. Meyerson said the hospital plans to lay off dining service workers as “punishment” for their involvement in the three-week strike last fall.

“The layoffs are designed to teach [dining service workers] a lesson for working for a better life,” he said.

Union leaders from Yale’s two largest unions, locals 34 and 35 — who signed eight-year contracts with the University in September — also urged the hospital to settle contracts with workers.

Local 34 President Laura Smith said University officials should recognize the need for fair contracts and better relations with employees.

“We don’t have to accept Yale’s retaliatory actions. We want to send a message to Yale’s leaders, to remind them of a promise they made of an equal partnership,” she said.

Local 35 President Bob Proto said yesterday’s rally was also a demonstration of hospital workers’ desire for contracts. Workers have been without contract for over a year.

“This protest is about winning good contracts for the dietary workers and to expose the [hospital] board for what they are,” Proto said.

But Petrini said unions have been holding many recent rallies to increase their influence. He said yesterday’s rally may be part of District 1199’s continued efforts to unionize workers.

“And if this is a part of the broader organizing issue, it’s important to say the hospital supports the rights of employees to seek representation under the [National Labor Relations Board] election process — if there is enough support among workers — but it looks like, right now [union officials] do not have enough support,” he said.

The hospital and unions have traded several lawsuits this year. In one case, 13 dining service workers filed a suit against SEIU District 1199, alleging the union engaged in illegal retaliation practices when the workers continued to report to work during the three-week strike last fall. In January, the hospital workers’ union filed a class-action lawsuit against the Yale-New Haven Health Care System concerning its debt-collection policies. Before that, in October, Yale-New Haven Hospital officials filed a series of formal complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the union representing dining service workers illegally paid members to vote down proposed contracts.

District 1199 members participated in a three-week strike this fall alongside members of locals 34 and 35.

Despite accusations that the union has used illegal tactics to attract greater union membership, union leaders maintain yesterday’s rally was held in defense of workers’ rights.

— Staff reporter Paula Brady contributed to this story
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