Ted Griffith Journal Staff
- A union that traditionally represents construction workers is
expanding its ranks with an ambitious new plan to sign up thousands
of health care workers in New England.
Within the last few months, the Laborers'
International Union of North America has picked up more than 600
health care workers in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
At the end of October, 250 employees at Somerville Hospital joined
the Washington, D.C.-based union.
The new Somerville Hospital members include
clerical employees, food service workers and nurses' aides.
Bill Goodrich, the New England coordinator
for the union, said the Laborers' International is also pushing
to unionize workers at two other Massachusetts hospitals, which
he declined to name.
Goodrich said the union expects to add members
at nursing homes in Massachusetts as well. Already, employees
at nursing homes in Connecticut and Rhode Island have voted to
join the union. "People will be seeing a lot more of us,"
Goodrich admits the idea - a construction
workers' union representing health care employees - sounds offbeat.
But he said his union has the resources and experience to negotiate
good contracts for health care employees. Laborers' International
reports membership of more than 750,000.
"We're a strong union that will fight
for workers' interests," Goodrich said.
He said the union's goal is to sign up 1,000
health care workers annually in New England during the next few
Founded in 1903 to represent construction
workers, the union in later years increased its membership by
branching out into other fields, including government and health
care. Goodrich said the union now has six full-time staff members
devoted to organizing health care workers in Connecticut, Massachusetts
and Rhode Island.
Frustrated with the growing emphasis on the
bottom line in health care, has pushed hospital and nursing home
employees to unionize, Goodrich said. "With the staffing
cuts and reductions in pay, they feel like things have really
changed," he said. "It's not like 15 or 20 years ago
when you could really spend time with the patients."
In addition to better wages and benefits,
Goodrich said his union can negotiate contracts for health care
workers that give them greater influence over the decision making
at a hospital or a nursing home.
Ray Clark, director of labor relations for
Somerville Hospital, said he thinks the workers there voted to
unionize because they are hoping for an increase in pay. Clark
said he doesn't expect the union will have a major impact on the
way the hospital operates.
Alan Sager, a professor at Boston University's
School of Public Health, said health care workers are probably
turning to unions as a reaction to consolidation in the health
care industry. If the mergers continue, the unionizing may increase,
"People don't join unions without very
strong motives," Sager said. "We're having a lot of
movement without progress in health care. That movement is often
dizzying to workers in the trenches."