by GISELLE CHANG
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 and employers allow workers to freely, without employer intimidation, vote on having the union at their hospital, nursing home or health care institution.
Many area hospitals and nursing homes employ unionized health care workers, with Johns Hopkins Medicine being the first to do so over fifty years ago. But participants in the rally said that others, such as the University of Maryland Medical Center, dissuade 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.”
Wade Hilton, a physical trainer who has a private practice but 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 join the Heart of Baltimore campaign and demand unionization. While they may not lose their job, they may be demoted to a lower-paying one, Hilton added.
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.
As one in every five Baltimoreans works in the health care, the 1199SEIU campaign the Heart of Baltimore, aims to not only improve the livelihoods of these workers by raising wages and guaranteeing health care benefits through unionization 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.”
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.”
Annie Henry, an instrument processor with Johns Hopkins Medicine, has been a member of the union for 41 years in order to battle racism she says she 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.
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 Heart of Baltimore campaign for free and fair union election. Last fall the campaign was strengthened through resolutions passed by both the city and county councils calling on all health care institutions and health care providers to free and fair union election. The resolutions cannot mandate, however, that employers allow union election.
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.
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.”