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Environmentby Brew Editors10:48 pmJun 24, 20100

Health care workers rally for better pay, more rights

Many said they are currently barely making poverty wages and are unable to afford the health care benefits they provide for other patients.

Above: The crowd at Thursday’s 1199 rally.

Around 400 people, joined by actor and activist Danny Glover and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, crowded Mt. Vernon Square yesterday afternoon for 1199SEIU’s “The Heart of Baltimore” rally to demand that all health care institutions allow workers to freely, without employer intimidation, vote on union representation.

Many area hospitals and nursing homes employ union-represented health care workers, with Johns Hopkins Medicine being the first to do so over fifty years ago. But many more, including the University of Maryland Medical Center and St. Agnes Hospital, are largely not unionized. Participants in the rally said some employers discourage their employees from pursuing unionization with fear campaigns and punishment.

“How much do I like my job?” Gary Miller, a technician at St. Agnes Hospital Emergency Department mused out loud, before deciding to answer why he supports unionization.

“St. Agnes Hospital is not yet unionized and we’re letting the union make the first move, otherwise we [workers] could get in big trouble.”

Gary Miller, a technician in the St. Agnes Hospital Emergency Department and a home nurse at the North Nursing Home (Photo by Elizabeth Suman)

Wade Hilton, a physical trainer who worked in a hospital for many years, shared similar sentiments, saying that some workers “are afraid it’s going to affect their jobs” if they demand unionization. They may not lose their job, Hilton said, but they could be demoted to a lower-paying one.

Why take that risk?

The crowd of nurse’s aides, technicians and laundry, food service and other workers — many of them still wearing their scrubs and carrying stethoscopes, all of them enduring the blistering heat — said they need to organize to improve their sector’s chronic problem of low pay and poor working conditions.

Many said they are currently barely making poverty wages and are unable to afford the health care benefits they provide for other patients. Organizers said the problem is disproportionately worse in Baltimore and that nurse’s aides here make less than their counterparts in every other major East Coast city.

They are two-and-a-half times more likely than other Maryland workers to be on food stamps, and more than half of them make so little, their children qualify for the state’s low-income health insurance plan, according to the union.

Since one in every five Baltimoreans works in the health care, the union argues that its campaign will not only improve workers’ lives by raising wages and guaranteeing health care benefits, but, in effect, heal the ailing Baltimore economy as well.

“It is about strengthening the economy for the entire city,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said to the crowd, a sea of people in purple shirts waving yellow inflatable batons. “When health care workers have a voice, we all win.”

Workers with a sense of ownership, control and say over their environment perform better Miller said: “With the union, when we voice our concerns we will have much better of a chance of controlling what will be implemented, which is good not only for us but for the patients too.”

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (Photo by Elizabeth Suman)

Rawlings-Blake echoed that sentiment, saying that every health care worker deserves a voice on the job and that when they do, “you can assure that every patient gets the right care.”

Less than 10 percent of Maryland health care workers belong to unions. Some institutions have a portion of their workforce represented by a union. The University of Maryland Medical Center, for example, has about 6,800 employees (not including 1,000 faculty physicians) and, of that group, the only union members are about 400 employees in housekeeping and food service, according to director of public affairs, Ellen Beth Levitt.

Levitt said the idea that hospital employees are intimidated or discouraged from seeking union representation is “ridiculous” and “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

“There are always going to be some exaggerations and false accusations,” Levitt said. “Truly, our employees are happy.”

Annie Henry, an instrument processor with Johns Hopkins Medicine, has been a member of the union for 41 years and said she joined in order to battle racism sees in the work place. Henry said that after working for Hopkins for only six months she was ready to walk out the door and that it was joining the union that gave her a “voice without retaliation.”

Since then she said the union’s strength increased but that subtle bias persists even in workplaces like hers where the union is allowed. When she was applying for a position a few years ago, she said, she was rejected on the basis of being a union member.

Annie Henry, an instrument processor at Johns Hopkins (Photo by Elizabeth Suman)

Still the benefits outweigh the setbacks. Laura Pugh, a cook and delegate also with Johns Hopkins Medicine, joined the union in 1970 and says she did so because she “wanted to see change.” She describes how at the time she could only go in one door because she was black and that she was afraid to speak back to white employees. But “we have gotten better” Pugh stated, “better wages, better health benefits, we got a pension.”

Despite successes, the campaign is far from over. The local Baltimore union, which had been in existence since 1969, merged with the regional 1199SEIU (Service Employees International Union) five years ago, launching the campaign for free and fair union election. Last fall the campaign got a show of support frmo government when the Baltimore City  Council and Baltimore County Council passed resolutions calling on all health care institutions and health care providers to free and fair union election. .

Enthusiastic tambourine shaker (Photo by Elizabeth Suman)

Thus the rally, advertisements in magazines and newspapers, radio support and other forms of publicity are needed, organizers said, to raise awareness about the Heart of Baltimore campaign and put pressure on health care CEOs to adopt a free and fair union election code of conduct.

“We have now learned that change is possible and we have to make [employers] realize that we are a partnership,” Pugh said. “We’re trying to get everyone involved because everybody should have health insurance.”

Henry explained that she urges health care workers to join the campaign for unionization because there is safety in numbers. “At some point in time everybody is going to want to make more money and why wouldn’t you want to pay workers to make a decent living?” she demanded.

People registering for 1199 (Photo by Elizabeth Suman)

John Reid, the Executive Vice President of 1199SEIU Maryland/D.C. invigorated the crowd declaring that Baltimore health care workers have long suffered in comparison with their fellow counterparts just down the road in D.C.

Reid addressed the audience urging health care workers to stand up and assert their rights saying “we are ready to make our voice heard because we are the heart of Baltimore.”

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