There seems to be no problem. Both Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Service Employees International Union, Local 1199, have expressed support for holding a secret-ballot election to determine whether hospital employees want to unionize.

But the two groups have a long history of conflict, with the latest dispute focusing on how and to what ends an election should be held.

While hospital representatives insist that Yale-New Haven pays and treats its employees fairly, SEIU representatives allege that workers are underpaid, lack necessary benefits and are subject to harassment and intimidation by hospital supervisors. While the hospital will only permit an election for unionization run under National Labor Relations Board rules, the union insists that the NLRB insufficiently protects workers’ rights.

Local 1199 spokesman William Meyerson said the union wants an election moderated by a group other than the NLRB, such as a panel of legislators, a council of community leaders or a third-party group like the League of Women Voters. He said the NLRB has a history of leniency towards Yale-New Haven.

“The NLRB election process is neither fair nor democratic and favors management,” Meyerson said. “Under the current process, management is permitted to interfere with and intimidate workers. When they cross the line and break the law, no meaningful sanctions are placed on them.”

Over the last four years, the regional NLRB office has issued three complaints against Yale-New Haven for restraining, coercing, threatening and excessively restricting employees who discussed and promoted unionization. Meyerson said the hospital posted notices promising to follow NLRB rules in response to the complaints, but was not formally punished. He said the slow-moving procedures and bureaucracy of NLRB elections would work against employees trying to unionize.

But Yale-New Haven spokesman Vin Petrini said the NLRB elections procedure is established and respected and provides protections for management, unions and all employees. He said a different election organization would be unreliable and unpredictable.

“We already have a process in place that works,” Petrini said. “The NLRB’s is an inherently fair process, overseen by the federal government, through which disputes can be mediated. We have full faith and confidence that the NLRB would run a fair election.”

He said it is the SEIU that is guilty of intimidation and coercion, and employees have accused the union of harassment with unexpected visits and calls to their homes.

The NLRB has previously reviewed alleged illegal SEIU activity and forced union officials to make policy changes. Last year, 13 Yale-New Haven cafeteria employees filed unfair labor practice charges against the union, claiming SEIU officials refused to honor their resignations from the union and ordered them to accept formal discipline for working during a strike. The NLRB made union officials rescind their resignation policy, post notices of workers’ rights at the workplace and remove all penalties against the workers.

Jonathan Kreisberg, the NLRB regional attorney for New Haven, said the board’s responsibilities are to devise a “status quo remedy,” fix problems and ensure money is returned to those who are owed it — not dole out punishments. He said NLRB processes are necessarily time consuming.

“It’s a legal process, so it’s not an overnight thing,” Kreisberg said. “Each side has certain rights that have to be taken into account, and investigations take time. That having been said, the overwhelming majority of our cases are resolved very quickly.”

Although the University of Pennsylvania held NLRB elections in February 2003 to decide whether graduate employees should unionize, the efforts were thwarted after the university appealed the NLRB’s decision to allow the election.

Elizabeth Williamson, former co-chair of Graduate Employees Together–University of Pennsylvania, said the ballots were never counted and the ruling against the employee status of graduate students and researchers at private schools last July shows that the Bush administration’s NLRB favors institutions over workers.

“Though the election was quite well run and very fair,” she said, “the process is subject to the vagaries of national politics, and an employer can use the federal NLRB process to subvert the local processes.”

Jim Barrett, a professor of labor history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the NLRB had a good reputation among unions from its inception in the mid-1930s until the early 1980s, when the conservative Reagan administration came into office.

“Part of the shift has come because appointments to the NLRB tend to reflect the administration, and part has come because the board has been increasingly understaffed, which can slow its processes,” Barrett said.

Meyerson said Yale-New Haven employee unionization is necessary if workers are to gain better health benefits and salaries. He said current health coverage and wages are lower than those provided to unionized workers in analogous positions at the University.

“Yale-New Haven Hospital is the wealthiest, most prestigious hospital in the state,” Meyerson said. “There is no reason why, with that kind of wealth and power, it gives so little to its workers, and hospital employees should not have to be on welfare or work two or more jobs just to make ends meet.”

Petrini said Yale-New Haven compensates workers generously, providing wages higher than those at other hospitals across the state, and it is unfair to compare hospital workers’ salaries to those of University workers.