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Union organizing at University of Maryland Medical Center

Labor union officials have been given access to the University of Maryland Medical Center campus for the next 90 days so they may attempt to enlist hospital employees into the local Service Employees International Union.

In a letter to employees, UMMC President and CEO Jeffrey Rivest said the hospital’s Board of Directors decided to grant access to SEIU Local 1199, also called Healthcare Workers East, starting Monday.

University of Maryland Medical Center BaltimoreMary Lynn Carver, senior vice president and spokeswoman for the hospital, said union officials were being allowed on campus following negotiations that began at the request of Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O’Malley, said the governor “encouraged” the hospital to work with SEIU.

“The governor is supportive of workers having a right to consider whether organizing is in their best interests,” she said.

But in his letter, Rivest made it clear that he did not believe hospital employees should join the union.

“I, along with the hospital’s leadership team, do not believe representation by 1199 SEIU is in the best interests of our employees, our patients or our organization,” he wrote. “However, we respect your right to determine if union representation is right for you.”

Carver said the union has tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist UMMC employees before. She said employees’ mindset does not seem to have changed, but there has been an “escalation” of requests by “other parties” to allow SEIU to speak with employees on hospital grounds.

“SEIU has always been free to speak to our employees off hospital grounds, and has attempted to organize employees at the medical center on numerous occasions without success,” Carver said. “Some board members, and certainly the governor, did ask UMMC to work with [the union]. … We are not doing this because there has been any demand by employees.”

Carver declined to name the board members who wanted to allow SEIU access, and could not provide a recorded vote by the board, which is not subject to Maryland’s Open Meetings Act. The hospital, state-run until 1984, was made a private, nonprofit entity that year through an act of the General Assembly.

Carver referred questions about O’Malley’s involvement in the union access agreement to the governor’s office. In 2008, the board’s chairman and nine other members walked out of a board meeting and resigned because of perceived interference by O’Malley, who earlier that year appointed Washington lawyer John P. Coale and Alan H. Fleischmann, a former aide to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, without first seeking the board’s approval.

“The governor does appoint the board,” Carver said. “It would be natural that, obviously, there’s some connection there.”

Telephone messages left and emails sent to several members of the board were not answered.

Union officials must obtain signatures from 30 percent of hospital workers within a specific job category for an election to be held on the issue of union representation. Only two categories are eligible: professional medical staff, not including medical doctors and nurses, and business and clerical staff. About 2,000 employees are categorized as one or the other.

If the SEIU local fails to obtain enough signatures from a particular category, the union would not be allowed to recruit hospital employees in that category for three years.

Employees who sign are agreeing to allow the union to exclusively represent them in collective bargaining negotiations on wages, hours and working conditions.

Union officials declined to comment for this story.

Rivest noted that hospital leadership and employees’ direct supervisors were “limited” in how they could communicate with employees about unionization as part of the access agreement between UMMC and the union, but were providing information to employees through the website UMMCinformedchoice.com.

Union representatives are only allowed to talk to employees on non-work time, such as during lunch of breaks, before or after work, Carver said, but representatives are given access to specified areas of the hospital 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Hospital leadership opposes unionization because it says it already provides the best pay and benefits it can. Leadership also believes the ability to communicate directly with hospital employees is jeopardized if the union becomes a third-party intermediary.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents the hospital’s housekeeping and food services staff. Medical doctors at the hospital are all faculty at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Some local hospitals already employ union-represented health care workers, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.