Striking Workers Shame Prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital Over Low Pay

Bruce Vail April 10, 2014

On Wednesday, union workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital began a three day strike, demanding higher wages. With their current pay, many workers qualify for food stamps.

Some 2,000 union work­ers went out on strike Wednes­day at Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal in a protest aimed pri­mar­i­ly at expos­ing low wages at Baltimore’s sec­ond biggest employ­er and one of the nation’s most pres­ti­gious hospitals.
Mem­bers of 1199SEIU Unit­ed Health Work­ers East hit the pick­et lines at 6:00 a.m. April 9 for a three-day strike pro­voked by a stale­mate in nego­ti­a­tions for a new con­tract to cov­er the union work­ers. The pre­vi­ous con­tract expired March 31, and renew­al talks ear­li­er this week stalled on the key issue of rais­ing wages, accord­ing to 1199SEIU spokesper­son Jim McNeill. 
Hos­pi­tal exec­u­tives had received a ten-day warn­ing of the strike, says 1199SEIU Vice Pres­i­dent Vanes­sa John­son, so there was ample time to ensure that patient care would not be adverse­ly affect­ed. Union mem­bers are pri­mar­i­ly in main­te­nance and food ser­vice, with some tech­ni­cal work­ers such as sur­gi­cal techs. Oper­a­tions at the enor­mous Hop­kins med­ical com­plex are report­ed to be near-nor­mal with non-union nurs­es, admin­is­tra­tors and tem­po­raries fill­ing in for the union­ized strik­ers. Hop­kins spokesper­son Kim Hoppe would not respond to repeat­ed inquiries for addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion from Work­ing In These Times.
Labor trou­ble at Hop­kins has been brew­ing for some time. A year ago, the union signed an unusu­al one-year con­tract with the hos­pi­tal as a stop gap as nego­tia­tors wres­tled with dif­fi­cult wage and health­care issues.
More broad­ly, the 1199­SEIU-Hop­kins con­flict reflects Baltimore’s yawn­ing racial divide, with the pre­dom­i­nant­ly African-Amer­i­can union mem­bers receiv­ing few of the ben­e­fits, as Hop­kins’ well-paid physi­cians and admin­is­tra­tors pros­per. That eco­nom­ic divide was thrown into sharp relief Wednes­day with low-paid 1199SEIU pick­eters demon­strat­ing at the entrance to the hospital’s huge new med­ical build­ing, which cost the hos­pi­tal some $1.1 bil­lion to construct.
Hop­kins says they don’t have the mon­ey [to lift union wages] but they own most of the com­mu­ni­ty,” charged union mem­ber Michelle Hor­ton at an April 9 sol­i­dar­i­ty meet­ing of strik­ers and local sup­port­ers. Horton’s com­ment touched on anoth­er raw spot in Hop­kins’ rela­tion­ship with Baltimore’s African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty: The hos­pi­tal and relat­ed insti­tu­tions are cur­rent­ly engaged in a long-term effort to re-devel­op and gen­tri­fy the low-income res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods that sur­round the hos­pi­tal, prompt­ing charges of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and unfair dislocation. 
Those issues notwith­stand­ing, the focus of the sol­i­dar­i­ty meet­ing at St. Wences­laus Catholic Church on Wednes­day night was square­ly on the issue of high­er wages. 1199SEIU Vice Pres­i­dent John­son said that near­ly 1,400 of the 2,000 union mem­bers cur­rent­ly earn less than $14.92 an hour, the lev­el at which a sin­gle par­ent with one child will qual­i­fy for food stamps. 
Johns Hop­kins and [hos­pi­tal Pres­i­dent] Ron Peter­son should be ashamed of them­selves,” because some Hop­kins work­ers require pub­lic assis­tance like food stamps or Med­ic­aid, empha­sizes vet­er­an hos­pi­tal work­er Yvonne Brown. Accord­ing to a 2010 report in the Bal­ti­more Sun, Peter­son earns about $1.9 mil­lion a year.
The union ini­tial­ly asked a min­i­mum wage of $15 an hour, con­sis­tent with the demands of oth­er SEIU cam­paigns such as Chicago’s Fight for 15 ini­tia­tive, John­son says. Cur­rent­ly, nego­tia­tors are dis­cussing a five-year con­tract, and the union is push­ing to get a min­i­mum of $14 for all work­ers by the final year, and a min­i­mum of $15 at that point for work­ers with 15 years or more of expe­ri­ence . The expired con­tract had the low­est-paid work­ers start­ing at $10.71 an hour, with the best-paid earn­ing as much as $27.88.
Hop­kins can eas­i­ly afford the $15 min­i­mum, John­son says. The union esti­mates the raise would cost Hop­kins less than $3 mil­lion in annu­al pay­roll expens­es, while the non-prof­it hos­pi­tal report­ed a $145 mil­lion sur­plus last year.
Dr. Ben­jamin Old­field, a res­i­dent physi­cian at Hop­kins who led a group of non-union Hop­kins doc­tors, med­ical stu­dents and nurs­ing stu­dents to the Wednes­day sol­i­dar­i­ty meet­ing, agrees with John­son. “[As med­ical pro­fes­sion­als], we know that finan­cial inse­cu­ri­ty leads to bad health out­comes,” he told the group at the St. Wences­laus hall.. For a place like Hop­kins, which has plen­ty of mon­ey, I’m sur­prised that they haven’t got­ten this one right yet.” 
Hop­kins, how­ev­er, is adamant in nego­ti­a­tions that the $15 min­i­mum wage is not afford­able, accord­ing to John­son, who says the offers put on the table thus far have been pal­try. The most recent would see the min­i­mum rise to only $12.25 in the fifth year of the con­tract, an offer that prompt­ed the strike action this week, accord­ing to Johnson. 
That’s just not good enough, adds Wiley Rhymer, a mem­ber of the union’s nego­ti­at­ing team. We’re try­ing to get our mem­bers out of pover­ty, not keep them in it,” he tells Work­ing In These Times. 
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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