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Mobtown Beat

Organization Man

Mayor Backs UM Hospital Workers' Union Drive

By Tom Scocca | Posted 7/5/2000

Mayor Martin O'Malley rolls down his sleeves and gets down to business. The suit jacket, slung insouciantly over one shoulder, goes back on. It's the evening of June 29, and the mayor is preparing to address a meeting of workers from the University of Maryland Medical Center and labor organizers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), who are gathered in a Marriott Inner Harbor conference room. The workers and union reps are locked in a three-month standoff with hospital management over their bid to unionize the staff there. In this situation, sartorial discipline is key: When it comes to the semipublic, state-supervised University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), O'Malley's mayoral powers are of minimal use; he must, instead, rely on his mayoral aura.

Indeed, the limits of political power are the first issue in the stalemate between the union and the UMMS. Back at the end of March, cards were distributed to hospital workers to canvass them about joining SEIU District 1199E-DC, the local that covers service and technical workers at Johns Hopkins, Sinai, and Maryland General hospitals and the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Some 1,700 workers at the University of Maryland facility--ranging from housekeeping staff to lab technicians and nurse assistants--would be eligible to join the union; it would be the biggest group of Baltimore health-care workers to unionize since 1969. According to SEIU, a "solid majority" of those employees canvassed replied that they were interested in joining.

The next step was supposed to be an official election in which workers would vote for or against unionizing. But so far, UMMS has simply refused to permit the election to take place--and legally it can't take place without the medical system's recognition. For SEIU, a fast-growing union that recently leapfrogged the Teamsters to become the nation's largest, this is both frustrating and provoking. "Generally, you find resistance [from management], but people have the ability to vote," SEIU organizer Scott Courtney says.

If the medical center were still fully state-run, as it was until 1984, the state of Maryland could compel UMMS to hold the election. If the medical center were fully private, the federal National Labor Relations Board could do the same. But since it is neither, hospital management contends, UMMS has to answer to no one but itself. "It would be up to us to decide if we would invite an election," system spokesperson Ellen Beth Levitt says.

The union disputes UMMS' authority to prevent the vote. "We're not sure that they're not covered under the law," District 1199E-DC president Robert Moore says. But the pro-union forces say they would rather not hash out the question of jurisdiction. Instead, they're urging the hospital to go ahead and hold the election under the supervision of the community, rather than the government. This would entail assembling a committee, with membership approved by both sides, to monitor the process. SEIU officials say this is how union votes were handled at other Baltimore-area hospitals in the 1960s, before hospitals were under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board.

Two days before the meeting with O'Malley, a group of UMMS workers, union organizers, and other supporters held a lunchtime picket outside the hospital, on the corner of Greene and Baltimore streets, holding signs reading RESPECT OUR COMMUNITY and FAIR ELECTION NOW. "We should have the opportunity to voice our opinion," Sweetie Hawkins, a technician in the radiology department, says during the protest. "They're just stonewalling and intimidating people."

During the Marriott meeting, the mayor, dapper and attentive, affirms his support. "SEIU is with me, and I'm with SEIU," he tells the audience. There are maybe 40 people in the narrow room. "I just wanted to give you a shot in the arm and encourage you."

The workers offer their complaints and anecdotes. Ken Porter, a nurse's assistant in the cardiac-recovery unit, says supervisors have been telling workers they can be fired for doing union organizing on their lunch break. "Why is management so reluctant to give us a fair and speedy trial--I mean, election?" Porter asks.

"How do you get an election when somebody claims they're above the law?" another worker asks.

"My sense is that [management is] starting to loosen up a little bit," O'Malley says. "Why do they resist it? They always resist it. It's just in their nature."

The mayor keeps going, picking up steam. "It is also a very optimistic fact of human history," he declares, "that it takes a whole lot of people on the wrong side to defeat a few dedicated people on the right side."

The stories continue. Violet Williams, who is limping from a work-related injury, tells the mayor she has to leave her job because the hospital wouldn't find her light-duty work. "I have been faithful to University Hospital," she says. "I want to work. . . . Maybe if y'all get that election, I can come back."

O'Malley offers to write UMMS President and CEO Dr. Morton Rapoport on her behalf. Then he asks what else he can do. "I'm trying to apply as much pressure as I can for a free and open election," the mayor says. Someone invites him to join the workers for a rally July 12. He's unsure at first if he'll be in town that week--till someone asks when the next gig for his band, O'Malley's March, will be, at which point he remembers that yes, he will be around. He agrees to write more letters to Rapoport, and balks only at an invitation to confront the president with a contingent of workers. ("The idea of actually going into his office is something I'm a bit uncomfortable with," he says.)

Despite O'Malley's predictions of détente, management's position remains unyielding, at least publicly. "We are discussing the idea of having an election," Levitt says. "I don't think we are there yet. I don't think this is imminent."

Nor has the mayor's commitment, it seems, made much of an impression on UMMS. Asked for reaction to his stance, Levitt seems unaware that there is anything to react to. "I don't think," she says, "that someone has tried to tell us what kind of decision to make."

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