Daily Cal: Alta Bates medical workers looking to switch labor unions

NUHW In the NewsSeptember 7, 2012

Pooja Mhatre, Berkeley Daily Cal

Workers at the Alta Bates Medical Summit Center in Berkeley submitted a petition Tuesday requesting a switch in labor unions, in what they deem an effort to better protect their contracts and gain more democratic representation.

The petition — which has been signed by more than 1,200 hospital workers — calls for an election within the hospital to switch from Service Employees International Union, or SEIU Local UHW, to the recently created National Union for Healthcare Workers, or NUHW.

In total, Alta Bates Summit has more than 4,700 employees, said Carolyn Kemp, director of public relations at Alta Bates, in an email.

Last year, medical center employees voted to continue to be represented by SEIU. In late August of this year, an overwhelming majority of these SEIU-represented employees ratified a new contract with the hospital, she said.

“The new three year contract provides continued competitive wage increases and maintains a generous health, pension and other benefits,” Kemp said in the email.

NUHW secretary-treasurer John Borsos said the proposed switch to NUHW comes from a growing frustration among employees over a seeming lack of union representation — which has led to contract violations and an inability to communicate with employers.

As of press time, SEIU could not be reached for comment.

In July, hospital nurses went on strike to oppose proposed reductions to their contracts. Though nurses and workers are represented by different unions, they face similar issues and want their demands to be heard, said Oscar Medina, a transporter at the hospital who signed the petition.

“When the nurses go out to strike, we help them, because they are also supporters of NUHW, and we all want to be united,” Medina said.

According to Borsos, the current contract between Alta Bates and its employees prohibits the hospital from subcontracting work, which involves outsourcing to workers outside the union, though this would save the hospital money.

Medina said that despite this agreement, the hospital has subcontracted work in the past, causing 85 people to lose their jobs.

“(SEIU) knew of this years ago and chose to do nothing about it,” Medina said. “They are supposed to protect employees.”

Furthermore, Medina claims the hospital administration terminated workers for reasons not laid out in their contracts. The SEIU was ineffective when these former employees asked for investigatory interviews and union representation, he said.

NUHW, currently representing about 10,000 workers, was founded in 2009 when SEIU faced internal dispute over similar issues of representation, Borsos said.

“NUHW would actually give us a voice,” Medina said. “We can elect people to be our stewards who would actually show up and not disappear on us.”