Light & Verity

Hospital must pay in labor dispute

An arbitrator has ordered Yale-New Haven Hospital to pay $4.5 million in fines for breaking an agreement with the union that is trying to organize workers there. But her decision left unresolved the dispute over if and how a union will be established at the hospital.

The controversy comes at a sensitive time for Yale University, which is trying to improve its historically rocky relationship with its own unions. The hospital is separate from the university, with its own CEO, administration, and board. But the relationship between the two is close: Yale-New Haven is the teaching hospital for the university's medical school, and Yale representatives sit on the hospital's board.

The decision by independent arbitrator Margaret Kern, announced in late October, found that the hospital had systematically violated a 2006 agreement that set ground rules for a union election. (The election was canceled in December 2006, after the violations first came to light.) Kern, whom the two sides had hired to oversee the agreement, found that Yale-New Haven had violated the agreement and labor law by holding nearly 100 mandatory employee meetings, at which managers falsely claimed that union representation would spell loss of overtime, wage differentials, and benefits. She ordered the hospital to pay $2.2 million to the individual employees who were, in Kern's word, "victimized" by the aborted election; and $2.3 million to the union, District 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, to reimburse it for election costs. The hospital has made the payments to the employees but is reviewing 1199's costs before paying the union.

Kern's 47-page decision does not solve the underlying conflict over unionization. The hospital has pushed for a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. The union had previously called for a "card count" decision, in which union organizers meet with employees over time and collect their signatures; like many unions, it argues that the NLRB process allows management to manipulate and intimidate employees, and that a secret ballot does not mitigate that problem.

In the 2006 agreement, the union had consented to a secret-ballot election, with some additional protective provisions. But after the election was canceled, 1199 asked Kern to order the hospital to recognize the union. Kern ruled that she has no such authority.

"The most important point" of the ruling, says hospital spokesman Vin Petrini, "is that it preserves our employees' right to vote on this issue."

In a highly unusual move, hospital management has petitioned the NLRB for an election. Bill Meyerson, a spokesman for 1199, calls the request a "sham." "These petitions are filed when the union claims to have a majority," he says. "We don't claim to have a majority. We did; they destroyed it."

Meanwhile, Yale University and its own unions, locals 34 and 35, have been working on rapprochement since the resolution of the last contract dispute in fall 2003. Joint labor-management committees have been formed in work units to find "best practices" for increasing productivity and employee satisfaction. "We're working very hard to build a new and improved union-management partnership," says Laura Smith, president of Local 34 of the Federation of University Employees. The parties have two years until the current contract expires in January 2010.

The hospital situation does not help, Smith adds. "It's difficult to continue to say everything's much improved here when these awful violations have taken place" at the hospital. "It makes that trust much harder to build."

Yale president Richard C. Levin says, "We're working very well with locals 34 and 35," but he concedes that "the situation across town creates some bumps in the road." Levin, a hospital trustee, has publicly expressed dismay about the illegal mandatory meetings, the only trustee to do so. Yale currently has five seats on the hospital's 20-member board. Most of the other trustees are regional business leaders, such as the heads of NewAlliance Bank and Connecticut Energy Corporation.

In April, Levin met with leaders of locals 34 and 35 to discuss the hospital labor situation -- the first time a Yale president has sat down with the union's full executive boards. The unions asked Levin to "take a pro-union stand" on the hospital board, Smith says. (District 1199 turned up the heat again last fall, taking out full-page ads in the New Haven Register and the New York Times with the headline "Yale's hospital spent millions to destroy our union. They failed.") Levin says that his response was then, and is now, that he favors "a free and fair election" at the hospital. 

The comment period has expired.