Hollywood joins hospital workers to press Johns Hopkins to “pay a living wage”

The union 1199SEIU, which organized a three-day strike last month, gathered thousands for a rally in Baltimore

hopkins 4 10 14 mother and son

Montrell Taylor and his mother Nina Scroggins, an assistant cook at Hopkins Hospital, demonstrate for better pay for service workers.

Photo by: Fern Shen

An employee who’s a Tea Party Republican. Another who’s a struggling single mother. Actor/activists Danny Glover and Wendell Pierce.

The union that has been pushing Johns Hopkins Hospital to increase pay for service workers brought a diverse and star-studded lineup to the stage yesterday to address the crowd of about 2,000 assembled for a rally at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

But plenty of the people in the crowd – many sporting purple 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East shirts – seemed equally able to make the union’s case themselves, often from personal experience.

“They’ve got to pay more so we can support ourselves. I work so hard and I am barely making it,” said Nina Scroggins, an assistant cook who has been working at Hopkins for seven years and is a single mother of three.

Standing in McKeldin Square within sight of the tall-masted USS Constellation and other Baltimore tourist attractions, Scroggins said she still makes the starting salary for her position, $12.32 an hour. Despite putting in long hours, she said, she lives paycheck-to-paycheck and is barely making it.

“I have no tags on my car because I couldn’t afford to pay for them. I had to catch the free bus to get here,” she said, referring to the Charm City Circulator. She said she couldn’t afford to pay the registration fee for her car because she needed the money to cover her gas and electric bill.

Joined by union supporters from Massachusetts, D.C. and New York, Johns Hopkins Hospital service workers rallied for higher pay in Baltimore. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Joined by union supporters from Massachusetts, D.C. and New York, Johns Hopkins Hospital service workers rallied for higher pay in Baltimore. (Photo by Fern Shen)

She said she would like to advance to the higher-paying title of “cook,” but the certification process “costs like $200 and Hopkins won’t pay for it,” she said.

But as Scroggins told her story – and a band played rousing rally standards like Bob Marley’s “Get up, Stand up,” Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” – it became clear that she and others were feeling pretty optimistic.

“I think it’ll make a difference, what we’re doing here today,” she said. “I hope so.”

Union Goal: $15/hour

1199SEIU, which represents about 2,000 cooks, housekeepers, technicians and other workers, staged a three-day strike last month. But negotiations with Hopkins ended talks without an agreement.

Mounting an aggressive public relations campaign in local and national media, the union has said current pay levels at Hopkins are so low many caregivers are on food stamps, Medicaid or other public assistance.

Nearly 70% of Hopkins caregivers make less than $14.92 an hour, the wage that qualifies a single parent and child for food stamps, they say.

A scene from the Mother's Day weekend rally for Johns Hopkins Hospital service workers seeking better pay. (Photo by Fern Shen)

A scene from the Mother’s Day weekend rally for Johns Hopkins Hospital service workers seeking better pay. (Photo by Fern Shen)

1199SEIU is pushing for a $15 minimum wage for Hopkins workers with at least 15 years of experience in the first year of a proposed four-year contract. (Workers now make between $10.71 to $27.88 per hour.) Under the union’s proposal, every worker would be earning at least $14 an hour by the end of the contract period.

Hopkins has said it treats its workers fairly and will continue to meet with workers in good faith, but that it will not discuss negotiations in the media.

The hospital’s current offer contains across-the-board raises that would average just 1.75% a year over a proposed five-year contract, according to the union

This truck rolled down Light and Pratt streets during the rally. (Photo by Fern Shen)

This truck cruised Light and Pratt streets during the rally. (Photo by Fern Shen)

In a published op-ed letter, Ronald R. Peterson, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health Systems, said the institution is “striving to balance several different financial priorities within a finite pool of funds, to continue the kind of care people expect from us and to offer competitive compensation to all our employees to preserve job security.”

Peterson described Hopkins benefits as “one of the most generous benefits packages we know of offered by any employer” and noted that they include health care coverage, pensions and education and tuition reimbursement.

Speaking to The Brew before the rally, 1199SEIU President George Gresham said that union will continue to press its case. “Until they treat the workers fairly,” he said, ” we will continue to escalate this campaign.”

Asked if that means another strike, he said, “I’m certain that will take place.”

Improving Health by Fighting Poverty

At the event organizers called “Mothers March and Rally for Justice at Johns Hopkins,” speakers included two members of the bargaining committee, Kiva Robbins and Bob Domulevicz.

A “floor tech,” Robbins described herself as a single mom whose money troubles were severe, resulting in her losing her car and apartment. “There are times I’ve worked 16 hours a day for seven or eight days at a time, just to make sure the bills are paid.”

A self-described “Tea Party Republican,” Domuleveicz, a biomedical maintenance mechanic, said “Hopkins should be ashamed” about how it treats its workers.

Danny Glover speaks in support of Hopkins service workers. In dark sweater, Wendell Pierce, who also spoke in support of the union effort. (1199SEIU Facebook)

Danny Glover speaks in support of Hopkins service workers. In dark sweater, Wendell Pierce, who also spoke in support of the union effort. (1199SEIU Facebook)

Valerie Caldas, a student of international public health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found irony in the hospital’s wage scale for service workers.

“Improving wages improves health. It has been taught to us over and over again,” she said.

“When I came to Hopkins, I wanted to learn how to mitigate the effects of poverty around the world,” Caldas said. “I did not expect to have to do that at the hospital across the street.”

“This is a fight for workers not only here in Baltimore, in Maryland, in the region, but workers in this country and workers around the world,” said Glover.

Pierce, speaking in a driving rain, called for Hopkins to pay its workers “a living wage” and said he spoke not just as an actor but as a businessman. (He’s the founder of  Sterling Farms groceries, which aims to bring fresh meat and produce to food deserts in the New Orleans area .)

“I own a chain of grocery stores and I know one thing is true: my employees are my partners,” he said. “It’s just not a management-employee relationship, they’re my partners.”

Although the event was meant to tie in with Mother’s Day today, organizers also invoked some unique history which has to do with the year – 2014 is the 45th anniversary of the Hopkins workers’ vote to unionize with 1199.

Remembering Coretta Scott King

That 1969 campaign drew support from Coretta Scott King. Her visit, union leaders say, helped galvanize the drive to unionize workers doing the lowest-paid work at perhaps the most powerful institution in town. King made her visit to Baltimore a year after her husband, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., was gunned down in Memphis.

Several longtime union members who addressed the crowd were there and recalled those days.

Coretta Scott King in Baltimore in 1969 to help Johns Hopkins Hospital workers organizing to join the 1199 health care workers' union. (Photo credit: 1199SEIU)

Coretta Scott King in Baltimore in 1969 to help Johns Hopkins Hospital workers organizing to join the 1199 health care workers’ union. (Photo credit: 1199SEIU)

“If it wasn’t for the union, I wouldn’t be here today,” said an emotional Annie Henry, an instrument processor at Hopkins who has worked at there for 45 years. Speaking with The Brew, Henry said she will never forget hearing King’s widow speak on that August day.

“She came to help uplift our wages, to lift us up,” Henry said. (In this union-produced video she recalls the visit in more details.)

Today, she said, the hospital has fallen behind other medical centers in town that pay their workers more: “It’s the number one hospital, but they don’t want to pay the number one wages.”

“Now, 45 years later here we are again,” Henry said. “I guess history has a way of repeating itself.”

Wendell Pierce, actor and founder of the New Orleans-based Sterling Farms grocery store chain, in Baltimore yesterday. (1199SEIU Facebook)

Wendell Pierce, actor and founder of the New Orleans-based Sterling Farms grocery store chain, in Baltimore yesterday. (1199SEIU Facebook)

Hopkins physicians Benjamin Oldfield and Jocelyn Ronda spoke up in support of the workers. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Hopkins physicians Benjamin Oldfield and Jocelyn Ronda spoke up in support of the workers. (Photo by Fern Shen)

At the 1199SEIU rally for Hopkins Hospital workers, at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. (Photo by Fern Shen)

At the 1199SEIU rally for Hopkins Hospital workers, at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. (Photo by Fern Shen)

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  • Isabella

    It’s very, very good that this is happening.

  • RickinBmore

    Can Obama put forth an executive order stating that any institution that receives federal research grants must pay a locally determined living wage? Can that be written into grant guidelines without legislative approval? Seeing as Hopkins lives and breathes on federal grant money, such an order would solve the problem here.

    • ushanellore

      Great idea–won’t happen.

  • Aaron Mirenzi

    so Hopkins cant afford to pay higher rates? yet they can afford to basically rebuild the middle east neighborhood? don’t get me wrong I’m not entirely against the redevelopment of middle east. but I wonder if simply paying people more would help solve alot of the inner city problems that were happening there in the first place. of course Hopkins’ ability to redevelop the neighborhood was predicated on the idea that the neighborhood was hopeless in the first place. so perhaps Hopkins motivations were to keep wages low for a reason

    • GXWalsh

      I’m not sure the employees who are protesting necessarily live in the city. Not that that changes anything.

      • Aaron Mirenzi

        im not sure on the numbers, i remember reading somewhere that Hopkins was the biggest employer in middle east.

  • Andrew Keimig

    Sadly, macroeconomics 101 shows us that as unemployment increases with minimum wage increases.

    • ushanellore

      Sounds like something the plutocrats would say to scare people into accepting a pittance for being stretched like rubber bands. The answer: So be it–give me my raise now. I need gas money to get to work brother and that ain’t cheap.

      • Andrew Keimig

        Your classist rhetoric aside, this is one of the problems with our country. It’s all about me so I can get mine to better my life. Which one is better: a steady job for a larger percentage of people or a raise that leads more layoffs and less job creation?

        • ushanellore

          Ah, I am a classist and you are classless, because you think of the larger masses. Not get myself to a better life Koening, so that I can survive, would be more like it.

    • Sue_J

      Workers are not widgets and this is NOT a universally accepted economic theory. People need to stop saying this just because they took Econ101:

      • Andrew Keimig

        Economists are like meteorologists….you can often be wrong and still have a job.

        Despite our tendencies to believe that things like healthcare and employment are too complicated to be explained or solved by basic, free market economic principles, often the simplest solution is the correct one.

        I firmly believe that when you establish a wage floor, you create a demand surplus due to the number of firms willing to supply jobs at that price.

        • Sue_J

          Are saying the minimum wage should be abolished?

          I think we know where unregulated capitalism leads to, and no one wants to return to that. All that is being asked in the calls for increasing the minimum wage is that it be brought to real dollar terms. You seem to be very interested in economics, so surely you understand the concept of inflation and the effect it has on spending power. Here is an unbiased look at the spending power of the minimum wage today, compared with previous years:

          Clearly the minimum wage has fallen behind and needs to be increased.

          • Andrew Keimig

            The minimum wage should be abolished in my opinion. I’m also curious to see your examples of, “unregulated capitalism,” because this is common talking point I hear but those who use it rarely understand the entire situation.

            The minimum wage does not need to be increased because it was never intended to support the example cited in the article of a single mother with two children. It was intended to support one individual and I will argue that a little over $15,000 is plenty to support one person (having lived on Americorps wages which are substantially less than minimum wage, I have personal experience with this).

            A recent CBO report estimates that raising the minimum wage will only help 11% of those individuals living in poverty because most minimum wage earners are 1) teenagers or 2) second and third earners in the household.

          • ushanellore

            But did you live on 15,000 dollars for ever? No. Help the 11% man. They are people too. Or do you think they are expendable?

          • Andrew Keimig

            My year with Americorps was a stepping stone to another job just as a minimum wage job is supposed to lead to more advanced employment. Minimum wage was never meant to support a career/someone forever.

            The same CBO report estimated that increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 would cause 500,000-1,000,000 jobs to be lost.

          • Sue Johnston

            Andrew, with all due respect, I think you need to step out of your own experiences on this issue. It is great that you did a year with Americorps, and I do not mean to diminish the value of that. But that is not the same as being an assistant cook at Hopkins and trying to raise three children on that salary. I’m guessing you had a college degree when you chose to sign up with Americorps, and that you knew it would be a 1 year commitment, after which you could move up to something that paid better.

            But this story is about people who do not have those same opportunities and choices in life that many of us (myself included) do have.

          • Andrew Keimig

            I think the bigger issue here is how did this person get to the point where they have three kids and work as an assistant cook at Hopkins. Raising the minimum wage does not solve the underlying issues that lead people to call for minimum wage increases (e.g. the disintegration of the two parent household, having children out of marriage, persistent and generational poverty, and a dysfunctional public education system). We are not doing a good job addressing the causes of these deeply troubling and truly unfortunate situations and issues.

          • ushanellore

            And here you are 100% right. We should do that and also raise the minimum wage. Let me ask you something Andrew–at one time the minimum wage was 4.0 dollars or thereabouts, I assume. May be eons back-you think it should have stayed there because we are only papering over deep seated problems or because raising the minimum wage threatens jobs? Come on–for a sensible man with what seems to me good sensitivity about social issues, you are stubborn on this one–your mind has been made up, pal, and it solid as granite. No chipping it with arguments to the contrary.

          • Andrew Keimig

            As I stated before, I believe the minimum wage should be 0 because anything above 0 distorts the labor market. Also, you are equally stubborn about your position about the need to raise the minimum wage despite arguments to the contrary.

          • ushanellore

            There are people locked in minimum wage jobs for ever–for their minimum wage lock up not to become generational they need a leg up. To keep minimum wage low, to enslave people to that less than living wage, to tell them they should be thankful for what they have, if not they will be fired and to be oblivious to the cost of food, gas and other essential amenities that are getting exorbitant, crassly ordering the minimum wage earners to keep making the same amount of money no matter the escalation in prices all around for essentials, is to go ask these folks to die. It defeats your Americorp principles and the service mindedness that must have drawn you to Americorp in the first place.

            I understand what you are arguing here–you are saying better any job than no job, and that strikers like the ones at JHH, should be forewarned that if they push the envelope to increase their wages then they may find themselves with no wage at all, because those who hire have their pick of folks to hire from.

            Saluting your point of view and despite what the CBO has said, with the wage gap being phenomenal and executives and administrators being callous sons of guns, that people are risking their jobs, standing up and making a statement about how much wage is decent wage, I find to be admirable.

            Their situation is desperate. They are not selfish with a myopic view and a poor understanding of the long term consequences of a minimum wage mandated increase. They are merely trying to survive and do the best for their children. That people like these should never have had children is another point of view. But they have done so already and can you blame them for wanting better for their children than what they’ve had for themselves? Or is that universal human aspiration to be denied them merely because they have not played life’s cards well, or presumably they have been “lazier” than the winners.

            You kowtow to employers who, as soon as a minimum wage is in force, will dismiss as many employees as possible, automate, downsize and move on. Of course Sue as well as I can see this is a possibility or may be even an inevitability. But when the slaves were liberated the argument was that the cotton fields will lie fallow and the South’s cotton heydays will be gone, to the detriment of the South’s prosperity. That was no argument to continue slavery.

            Implementation of progressive ideas do not come without risks but the risks are worth taking and if not taken we will stagnate in the injustices we want dispelled.

            Outsourcing is in full swing, so is off shore accumulation of wealth and corporate welfare in the form of near zero taxes for the mega wealthy through tricky tax shelters. You are saying these are the rich we need to drive the engine of our economy and we have no choice but to bow to their predatory macroeconomics and to the whim of the market–regulate wisely but don’t rescue the dying from the quagmire of poverty–ah!

            But rescue the big banks and the big car makers–even the ones like GM who put out dangerous cars on the market knowing they are dangerous! Minimum wage hike will ruin the economy but credit default swaps, balloon mortgages and other such ghoulish ways won’t.

            By the way, all these ways of the of the good old boys and girls of Wall Street are back and regulations, smart and effective, even with the threat of enforcement looming, don’t seem to be stopping the shenanigans. Trouble is this: the poor don’t have enough money to lobby their way into the hallowed halls of Congress. They do vote but buying their vote has meant giving them dole. When they reject dole and do what they can do–work, join unions and strike for better working conditions and wages, then they shouldn’t do that because that may come back to bite them. Then what should they do? Just live on bended knees to the folks who hire them?

            Day Star complains about the poor service from some of the workers at Hopkins and how they should be fired. How about the hoity toity administrators and board members in these non profits, the former who draw large salaries, the latter mostly invisible–I have tried to reach some of these to complain about their heartless modus operandi–you can never talk to one. They are protected by a wall of underlings.

            They insulate themselves from the public and are answerable to no one. Before the lazy workers of Hopkins are fired, I suggest fire the fat cats–put them out to pasture, downsize their bloated salaries, take that money, pay the lower echelon a living wage, raise their standard of living and move on.

          • Andrew Keimig

            I honestly do not know how to respond to many of the things you said because they are absurd (here are the highlights):
            1) Comparing minimum wage to slavery
            2) Claiming wealthy Americans pay 0% taxes because of “tax shelters”
            3) Painting macroeconomics as a construct of the rich
            4) The overuse of straw-man arguments

          • Sue_J

            You need examples of unregulated capitalism? How quickly we forget. Here’s one example, out of many:


          • Andrew Keimig

            I don’t think anyone is arguing for unregulated capitalism. Smart and effective regulations are positive; but a minimum wage does more hurt than help/

          • ushanellore

            Sue, Koenig the macroeconomist has a micro vision. If you don’t pay a majority of the people in this country a living wage, then you won’t have buyers for all the materialism the capitalist market promotes at the cost of the environment. Who’ll buy all the crap if they don’t even earn a living wage? The free market my left foot, will drown.

          • Andrew Keimig

            Majority of people in this country? Less than 3% of all workers earn a minimum wage or less.

            Also, try spelling my name right or having the confidence to publish under your real name rather than a screen name.

          • ushanellore

            Usha Nellore a pseudonym? What do you think my real name should be? I do apologize for misspelling your name. That wasn’t right–Keimig–I got it right.

          • ushanellore

            Look at the American landscape–the minimum wage is only one aspect–there are others– the wage gap has increased, administrators and executives are laughing all the way to the bank, many Americans are underpaid and overworked and many are underemployed. The situation is pathetic if you haven’t noticed. This is impacting the health of a huge swath of America.

            You stick to your rosy picture that dictates the free market is an intuitive God that gives bountifully if left alone to march to its own drummer and I’ll stick to my more tragic version of what ails America.

          • Andrew Keimig

            I agree that many Americans are underemployed and wages have been stagnant. Where we disagree is the solution. The current demand side fiscal policies are not working and we need to change. More social engineering is not the answer.

  • KnowNothingParty

    You cant have rampant illegal immigration -and protection of these illegals AND growing wages of the unskilled workforce.

    • ushanellore

      Ah, the knownothing obsession.

  • Day_Star

    All the power to them. A raise to minimum wages will go a long way beyond Hopkins. You gotta wonder about the incentive to work full time if you are going to be stuck below the poverty line in perpetuity. In defense of higher wages (assuming protester success) I do however hope JH gets rid of some of the god awful employees who treat customers/patients poorly, can’t lend a helping hand if it’s 1 inch out of their way, and rely on their fellow work peers to pick-up their slack (or so I hear from like everyone). A raise for a few folks won’t cure character flaw.

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