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Labor adapts to service economy

Dennis Rivera , president of the New York-based 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East , recently rose to the job of chief of all SEIU healthcare workers in the country. He spoke with Globe reporter Christopher Rowland about the union's efforts to organize workers at Boston's teaching hospitals.

Q Why are you having success organizing healthcare workers when other unions are having trouble increasing membership?

A The American economy right now is basically going to a service economy, and we are in areas where the economy is growing. By this time next year, we will have 2 million members in our union, and that will be a milestone -- 1.1 million to 1.2 million will be healthcare workers. There are about 10 million healthcare workers in the United States that could potentially be organized. We believe this year we are going to organize around 100,000, including, we hope, 22,500 personal care attendants here in Massachusetts.

Q What have you been doing in the last year and a half since you first said you wanted to come to Boston and represent workers here?

A We have been having conversations with the CEOs of hospitals. At the same time, many of our colleagues have had many conversations with workers around Boston. It is fair to say that there is a cross-section of workers who want to join the union. We are at a very delicate stage of conversations with multiple health systems -- not only hospitals, but nursing homes. We expect some of them to lead to respectful resolution by which employees will have the right to vote in an election, free of coercion.

Q I hear from some hospital CEOs that bringing unions to Boston teaching hospitals will raise labor costs at a time of skyrocketing health insurance premiums, and decrease management's flexibility to make changes and improve care.

A If a hospital engages in an acrimonious battle that demeans workers and says its doesn't have any good ideas to contribute to the operation of the workplace, that's so old, so non-avant-garde. What we try to do is alleviate the fears of what life will be after we are representatives of the workers. This is what the workers have asked us to come in and do. We want to debunk those myths. We have far more in common with hospital management. We are under such attack right now, the whole healthcare community, particularly on the issue of healthcare financing. The payment methodologies by which hospitals will be paid in the future will be based on patient outcomes and results, and we believe we can help and assist in that effort.

Q You are trying to create new ways of union organizing. What is wrong with the old system?

A We do not believe that the National Labor Relations Board any longer represents workers' wishes. The NLRB is a graveyard of workers' aspirations. It's simply not meant to guarantee the free right of members to join a union, particularly in a hostile Republican administration that basically does not believe in labor unions in America. If we are going to have an election, it will have to be one where we agree with the employers on a code of conduct about what the conditions will be for the election.

Q So you try to negotiate terms of how the election will be carried out with employers? An agreed-upon way the dialogue will proceed?

A We're not saying that management cannot say to the workers, "We believe that our workplace would be better off without the union." That's fine. But on the other hand, what would be bad to say is that the union doesn't have a real motive to represent your interests; they are only after your union dues; if the union comes in you will lose your job; or, the hospital will close if the union is successful. All we're saying is for us to get an opportunity and not to make disparaging remarks that are untrue. This kind of atmosphere where we are challenging each other's motives, or basically trying to denigrate each other, is not the way to go.

Q Do you think we will see some breakthrough agreements this year ?

A I don't know if it will be in 2007, but I believe it will be in the near future. I am very confident that will happen.

Q Who are you backing in the Democratic primary for president?

A Our organization has not made a decision. It is far too early.

Q It seems significant, since you are based in New York and have such influence, that you have not already come out for Hillary Clinton.

A Hillary is an amazing friend, and she has an amazing knowledge about healthcare reform. I remember when she called me when I announced that I was going to be taking this leadership role, and she said to me, "Dennis, it would be great for me as president of United States and you as leader of healthcare workers of the United States to work together to craft universal healthcare coverage." I have immense sympathy for her. And she is a fantastic leader. But it is fair to say that in our organization, I don't make the decisions. There is a lot of sympathy right now for John Edwards. There is a lot of sympathy for Barack Obama. There is a lot of support for Hillary Clinton. There is also a lot of support for Bill Richardson.