A prescription for growth

Union aims to enlist home healthcare workers before it tackles teaching hospitals

Email|Print| Text size + By Jeffrey Krasner
Globe Staff / November 8, 2007

The results of an organizing vote by home healthcare aides, to be made public today, could give the powerful Service Employees International Union added momentum as it seeks to organize workers in Boston's teaching hospitals.

Mike Fadel, 1199SEIU executive vice president, said he was "cautiously optimistic" the union will be favored by a majority of 22,000 home healthcare workers from across the state when the results of the mail-in vote are unveiled this afternoon. That would enable SEIU to negotiate wages and benefits for the aides, who are paid by the state's Medicaid program, Mass Health.

"The SEIU has a global vision to organize all healthcare workers," said Jeff Toner, principal with Dietz Associates, a firm that helps unions and management communicate during organizing campaigns. "If SEIU can show that they can incrementally increase the wages and benefits of home healthcare workers, that's an opportunity to show what they can do for all healthcare workers."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino and state Senator Steven A. Tolman, Democrat of Brighton, are expected to attend an SEIU event this afternoon at the Veronica B. Smith Senior Service Center in Brighton, at which union officials will detail the results of the vote.

Menino last month said he favors SEIU's efforts to organize hospital workers. Tolman sponsored a bill, passed last year, that enabled the home healthcare workers to unionize.

"Personal care attendants perform truly vital work for the Commonwealth, and as a union member, I'm proud to stand with fellow citizens that wish to organize," Tolman said in a statement.

"Home care jobs should be good jobs," Menino said. "Their job is to take care of the most vulnerable. Their work is very valuable, and they need fair wages."

With about 300,000 workers and retirees, 1199SEIU says it's the largest union local in the world. It currently has about 155,000 members in New England, including healthcare and child-care workers, university employees, and public sector workers.

Adding home healthcare workers could help SEIU's larger hospital organizing efforts in a number of ways, Toner said. It would demonstrate its ability to win raises and improved benefits for workers at the lower end of the wage scale. In addition, some home healthcare aides would be able to get more training and qualify for hospital jobs, potentially giving SEIU an advantage in its organizing efforts.

The union is asking hospitals to voluntarily give up some of their organizing-campaign rights included in the National Labor Relations Act and embrace a system which would make organizing easier. The SEIU wants the hospitals to allow it to schedule an organizing vote much earlier than is allowed under traditional rules.

SEIU negotiated such agreements with management to conduct organizing campaigns at Boston Medical Center, UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, and Whidden Memorial Hospital in Everett.

With the teaching hospitals, the union is spending little time discussing traditional issues such as wages, benefits, and working conditions. Instead, it is focusing on larger issues, such as its purported ability to improve healthcare at hospitals by organizing workers. It is also targeting high-profile individuals, such as hospital trustees.

In a news release publicizing today's event to disclose the home healthcare workers' vote, the union said organizing the aides "is an important step toward vastly improving healthcare in Massachusetts. It will provide better access to healthcare for thousands of seniors and people with disabilities, so they can live at home instead of institutions."

Currently, home healthcare aides are hired by the individuals they serve, or their family members, even though they are paid by Mass Health. They help with a variety of tasks, including bathing, feeding, and cooking.

Under the law passed last year, the thousands of individual health aides would be recognized as a bargaining unit; however, they would continue to be hired and fired by individual clients.

Last month, SEIU also got a boost from actor and director Ben Affleck, who was in town to promote "Gone Baby Gone," the movie he directed and filmed in Boston. Affleck spoke with Menino in support of the union and its organizing goals. SEIU also held several rallies in the Longwood Medical Area, home to many of the city's academic hospitals.

While SEIU officials haven't spelled out their strategy for organizing teaching hospitals, they are believed to be focusing on Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The hospital's chief executive, Paul Levy, has said he doesn't believe unionizing workers would improve its teaching, research, or medical care.

Jeffrey Krasner can be reached at

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