The Connecticut Center for a New Economy Political Director Gwen Mills fielded questions on topics ranging from the Yale-New Haven Hospital’s recent violations of labor laws to her favorite pizza place in a Monday-night discussion with 25 students sponsored by the Yale College Democrats and the Undergraduate Organizing Committee.

An independent arbitrator has yet to issue a recommendation in a unionization dispute between the hospital and union SEIU-1199, but for now, the projected recommendation represents the best opportunity for a fair resolution, Mills said. The hospital’s previous efforts at intimidating workers has created an environment of fear, rendering a secret-ballot election untenable, she said.

“It’s scary for someone who wants the union to be pulled into a room one-on-one and hear their boss say, ‘Well, you know I don’t like this union thing, and you know how I let you pick up your kid on Wednesday? I might not let you ever do that again,’ ” she said. “The damage is done — people are scared.”

The hospital reached a settlement last spring with the National Labor Relations Board, which filed a complaint in May enumerating the hospital’s violations of labor laws leading up to union elections last December. While the NLRB settlement cited the hospital’s wrongdoings, Mills said the consequent punishment — displaying posters publicizing the hospital’s violations — was a mere “slap on the wrist.”

As a harsher means of recourse and a greater protective measure for workers, Mills said she hopes the dispute’s independent arbitrator will recommend a bargaining order or a card-check election. Under a bargaining order, the hospital would be forced to recognize the union; in a card-check election, a union would automatically be created if a majority of workers turned in pro-union cards.

“We have workers that work side by side, and one will work for the University and be paid 17 or 18 dollars an hour, have free family health insurance, a defined pension plan,” she said. “Someone doing the exact same job will be paid $12-13 an hour, have minimal pension plan and pay thousands of dollars for health care.”

Hospital spokesman Vin Petrini, who was not in attendance at the event, said Mills’ comparisons were “by and large apples to oranges.” The hospital provides free healthcare services to its employees, he said, and despite the NLRB’s findings, the hospital has been supportive of the union voting rights of employees “from day one.”

Mills said the union is prepared to accept whatever ruling the independent arbitrator, Margaret Kern, issues.

But Petrini said the hospital does not believe Kern has the power to mandate a bargain. The hospital is ready to “close the door on this chapter and move on as an organization and a community,” he said.

“The NLRB has fully reviewed all of these matters over the course of several months in depth and has determined that the issues are resolved,” he said.

As part of a March 2006 agreement brokered by City Hall officials, the hospital and the union agreed to hold an NLRB-supervised election, with the participation of an independent arbitrator. But the NLRB postponed the elections after Kern discovered that hospital managers had conducted illegitimate meetings with workers and discussed unionization with them.

A ruling by Kern could potentially call for a bargaining order or a check-card election, although the hospital has not made any promises about whether it acknowledges Kern’s jurisdiction or whether it will ultimately follow her ruling.

UOC members in the past have actively campaigned for unionization rights and called upon University officials to play a larger role in the dispute, as nine of the hospital’s board members are also Yale administrators. Yale College Democrats President Eric Kafka ’08 said because both sides invested their trust in the independent arbitration, Kern’s ruling — not the NLRB settlement — will determine factor in how the Yale Dems act next.

“We’re right now waiting to see the arbitrator’s ruling, and in the meantime, we’re trying to educate our membership so they understand the context of the ruling,” Kafka said. “I’m hoping the hospital will follow the arbitrator’s agreement, and we’ll go from there.”