For Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore Is A ‘Company Town’

Bruce Vail March 12, 2013

Johns Hopkins' new $1.1 billion medical center, the biggest new investment in urban Baltimore in decades, is a potent symbol of Hopkins' wealth and power in the city.

BAL­TI­MORE — Union­ized work­ers at Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal final­ized a new labor con­tract this week in an episode that high­lights the stark eco­nom­ic pow­er of wealthy Hop­kins in a city bad­ly wound­ed by indus­tri­al decline and munic­i­pal neglect.

Late last week, mem­bers of 1199SEIU — the East Coast health­care divi­sion of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union — vot­ed to approve a one-year con­tract cov­er­ing main­te­nance work­ers, kitchen staff, nurse aides and oth­er work­ers, says Armeta Dixon, an 1199SEIU vice pres­i­dent with expe­ri­ence deal­ing with Hop­kins and oth­er hos­pi­tals in the area.

Though it pro­vides a wel­come 2.25 per­cent wage increase with­out any big con­ces­sions, the con­tract is prob­lem­at­ic in that it also defers for a year the res­o­lu­tion of a dif­fi­cult issue that could prove very dam­ag­ing to union mem­bers; Hop­kins wants to impose a new health insur­ance sys­tem that would be an eco­nom­ic hard­ship” on mem­bers, Dixon says, and there appears to be lit­tle room for agree­ment between the union and hos­pi­tal man­agers on how to han­dle the issue.

In an inter­view with Work­ing In These Times, Dixon was reluc­tant to dis­cuss the eco­nom­ics of the Hop­kins pro­pos­al, but an ear­li­er esti­mate from the union had pegged the addi­tion­al cost at $1,800 a year for each mem­ber. If imposed by the hos­pi­tal at that lev­el, the new health care costs will eat up all the gains from the wage increase, and will actu­al­ly reduce the take-home pay of the large­ly low-paid union workers. 

The one-year con­tract, Dixon indi­cates, is essen­tial­ly a stalling tac­tic that pro­vides a lit­tle breath­ing room for fur­ther nego­ti­a­tion. Nor­mal­ly, Hop­kins and two oth­er Bal­ti­more hos­pi­tals sign three-year con­tracts at about the same time, with sim­i­lar wage and ben­e­fit pro­vi­sions. But that pat­tern has now gone by the way­side, and the union faces an espe­cial­ly chal­leng­ing year ahead.

Les Bay­less, a Bal­ti­more union activist who has worked for SEIU and oth­er unions in the area, says that while the health­care union has some real strengths, it is bad­ly over­matched in its con­test with Hop­kins. As the sec­ond largest sin­gle employ­er in Bal­ti­more — the uni­ver­si­ty itself is the first — Johns Hop­kins Med­i­cine is a huge pres­ence in the city. Union­ized employ­ees make up only a small por­tion of Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal employ­ees, and the union has made no inroads at all into the well-paid tech­ni­cal and pro­fes­sion­al voca­tions that have made it famous at the nation­al and inter­na­tion­al level.

Fur­ther, the hos­pi­tal and its asso­ci­at­ed orga­ni­za­tions have invest­ed bil­lions in med­ical facil­i­ties here in an era when indus­tri­al and com­mer­cial busi­ness­es have fled the city. With­in the last year, the near­by Spar­rows Point steel mill was closed per­ma­nent­ly, and the city’s largest pri­vate cor­po­ra­tion, Con­stel­la­tion Ener­gy, was gob­bled up by a Chica­go-based con­glom­er­ate. In con­trast, Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal opened a gleam­ing $1.1 bil­lion med­ical com­plex in an eco­nom­i­cal­ly depressed sec­tion of the city. Hop­kins’ wealth and influ­ence are unmatched in the region, Bay­less says, and even the largest and strongest unions would be overpowered.

But Dixon says that this real­i­ty is not going to pre­vent 1199SEIU from fight­ing Hop­kins over next year’s con­tract. Mem­bers are already over­bur­dened” with high heath care costs, she says, and have already begun mobi­liz­ing for a new con­tract fight. 

All of this comes at a time when 1199SEIU is devel­op­ing its Heart of Bal­ti­more” cam­paign, a long-term effort to increase mem­ber­ship with new orga­niz­ing ini­tia­tives at non-union hos­pi­tals and oth­er health care facilities.

The cam­paign was launched in 2010 with a low-inten­si­ty effort to build polit­i­cal sup­port at the grass­roots lev­el. Among oth­er things, the union wants local politi­cians and pub­lic insti­tu­tions to sup­port a Free and Fair” code of con­duct for health­care employ­ers that would pro­hib­it aggres­sive anti-union cam­paigns. It has some back­ing from influ­en­tial politi­cians, such as Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Malley and Bal­ti­more May­or Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

A focus for orga­niz­ing is the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Med­ical Cen­ter (UMMC), anoth­er large hos­pi­tal that has long been in the union’s sights. UMMC spokes­woman Mary Lynn Carv­er con­firmed that 1199SEIU orga­niz­ers have been active recent­ly at the Center’s facil­i­ties but declined any fur­ther com­ment. New orga­niz­ing is nev­er easy, Bay­less observes, and it will be dif­fi­cult for 1199SEIU to mount an effec­tive UMMC effort with the Hop­kins con­tract issue cast­ing a shad­ow over developments.

But, Dixon says, the imme­di­ate next step for 1199SEIU is to reach new agree­ments with the two oth­er Bal­ti­more hos­pi­tals with union con­tracts, Greater Bal­ti­more Med­ical Cen­ter and Sinai Hos­pi­tal. Exist­ing con­tracts have expired with both hos­pi­tals and tem­po­rary exten­sions are in place, says Dixon, adding that nego­ti­a­tions have already start­ed but there is no tar­get date for com­ple­tion of the new agreements.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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