Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Mobtown Beat

On the March

Hospital Workers Walk Out as Contract Talks Heat Up

By Tom Scocca | Posted 2/7/2001

The slower city hospital workers' contract talks go, the bigger the fight over them gets. This is why, at noon Jan. 31, there are union members from New York waving signs across from Mercy Hospital.

Neither Mercy nor New York is party to the bargaining, in which Service Employees International Union (SEIU) District 1199E-DC is negotiating new deals with Johns Hopkins Hospital, Sinai Hospital, and Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC). But on this day, two months after old contracts for maintenance staff, housekeepers, nurses' assistants, and other service workers expired, the standoff between the union and the three hospitals is expanding into new territory.

SEIU workers are staging a one-day strike at all three hospitals. The New Yorkers have come to town, decked out in pro-union gear, to support the Baltimoreans. Mercy Hospital is just a bystander, going about its business as strikers, strike sympathizers, and the media gather at Preston Gardens, the sliver of parkland where St. Paul Street splits in two, for a centralized rally.

Sinai and GBMC service workers haven't struck since 1984, their Hopkins counterparts since 1980. SEIU came into the negotiations with ambitious demands: a minimum wage of $10 per hour (at Hopkins, the current minimum starting wage is $7.52, lowest among the three hospitals) and a set of proposals to broaden labor-management partnerships, limit anti-union activity by the hospitals, and expand worker training. The union's goal, Robert Moore, 1199E-DC's president, explains in a post-strike interview, is to transform working standards for hospital service employees citywide.

The hospitals seem to want no part of such a transformation. In an internal e-mail notifying employees of the strike, Hopkins described SEIU's wage demands as "unreasonable" and the proposed labor- organizing rules as "potentially illegal." All three hospitals stress that they are negotiating with the SEIU individually, not as a collective entity. "It appears that the Union is more willing to devote its energy and resources to organizing a strike rather than on a good faith effort to reach an agreement," Hopkins announced in a Jan. 20 written statement. "We can only suspect that this course of action is driven by a desire to serve broader union interests than the interests of Union members at The Johns Hopkins Hospital."

Out on the grassy hillside and the plaza, the broader union is showing some muscle. Between the strikers from the three affected hospitals and their various supporters--the New Yorkers from District 1199, the parent of the Baltimore local; members of other city unions; the Student-Labor Action Committee from Johns Hopkins University--there are roughly 1,000 people here. (In the next day's edition of The Sun, SEIU organizers will double that figure and city police will cut it in half.)

In a fortunate coincidence for a city still basking in Super Bowl triumph, SEIU's color is a familiar purple. With weeks of practice, the Baltimoreans slide easily into a pep-rally spirit. There are purple jackets, pullovers, T-shirts, ball caps. Demonstrators mill around waving purple signs and blowing purple-and-white whistles. Many wear purple berets, which manage to be both cheerful and militant. More than a few have added suitable bits of NFL gear to their outfits. "We are going to roll over them like the Ravens," one speaker yells from the rally stage.

Broad as the spectacle may be, the workers in the crowd offer specific and particular complaints over dollars per hour and duties per shift. "We're not certified to do EKGs, but we do them," says Qwan Moseley, a patient-care associate from Sinai. "They won't certify us . . . but they expect us to do them."

"I work, like, four 16-hour days a week," says Andre Wilkerson, who transports patients and cleans rooms at GBMC. Wilkerson, fresh out of high school, has only been at the hospital for four months and he says he'll be heading off to college before long. But he's cheerful about joining the strike. "I just worked for UPS," he says. "We did it at UPS, dammit, we'll do it here."

After about half an hour at Preston Gardens, the strikers line up for a march to the harbor, escorted by four police officers on motorcycles. Massing behind union banners, they fill the width of the street and stretch back for a full block. Photographers and video-camera crews scurry in front of them as they march uphill to Saratoga Street, then downhill past the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. Three men with bullhorns take turns leading chants: "What do we want?" "A contract!" "When do we want it?" "Now!"

The next stab at a contract isn't supposed to take place till a week after the strike and rally. At press time, SEIU and Hopkins had agreed to meet Feb. 7 for more negotiations, and Moore says the union plans to meet with the other two hospitals before the end of the week. For the time being, there are no plans for another walkout.

The Jan. 31 demonstration continues, moving down to the water. The yelling and whistling get louder, clattering between the tall downtown buildings. At least two chants are going on simultaneously, from different parts of the march. The people up front have picked up a new one, just for the occasion: "Who let the union out?" "S! E! I! U!" Somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic, Woody Guthrie's ashes are flinching.

The march tries to stop by Harborplace for another rally, but the police have gone ahead and shut down Light Street for them, so they take to the street again--past the hotels and clear around to Rash Field, where buses wait to return them to the picket lines. Waiting to board, Reggie Price, a support associate at Hopkins, laments the hospitals' reluctance to meet SEIU's demands. Like many Hopkins service workers, he says, he lives in East Baltimore, right near the hospital. Higher wages would benefit the whole community, he argues, and there's plenty of room for pay to go up.

"I started at Hopkins making $6 an hour in '92," he says. "Now, eight years later, I'm only making $9.80. . . . I don't see why they're fighting so hard not to give it to us."

Related stories

Mobtown Beat archives

More Stories

30 Years Later, the Times Discovers "The New Poor" (2/21/2010)
The Times on "the New Poor": they're actually old, and we're all pretty fed up by now

Local 44 files labor complaint against Convention Center and city (7/2/2009)

Developmental Responsibilities (8/6/2008)
Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union Organizes to Fight For Better Development Policy

More from Tom Scocca

Red, White, and True (4/17/2002)
Triumph never gets old. It's April 11, 10 days after the Maryland Terrapins' victory in the NCAA men's basketball final, and City Hall Plaza is...

Batter Down (4/10/2002)
Opening Day was cold and hopeful. Second-game day was just cold. The wind pounded through the upper deck, where empty seats seemed to co...

That Championship Season (4/3/2002)
Now we know how far a basketball team can go without its A game: all the way to the end. This is not what we were expecting, those of us who wa...

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter