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Hundreds of Johns Hopkins Hospital workers protest along Orleans Street in April. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Strike a change in strategy?

Union limiting action against Johns Hopkins

The labor strike launched this week by service workers at the Johns Hopkins Hospital is quite different than the strikes held during the height of the organized labor movement decades ago, several experts said, but it might become organized labor’s strategy of the future.

The strike began Wednesday at 6 a.m. on the Baltimore hospital’s campus after the vast majority of 2,000 service and maintenance workers voted Tuesday to reject the hospital’s proposed labor contract.

But unlike traditional labor disputes of years past, the workers don’t plan to march the picket line until a deal is reached. Their union, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, decided to set a time limit: The strike will continue around-the-clock until Friday at 6 p.m., even if Hopkins hasn’t made a better offer by then.

“In the old days, strikes would go on for weeks or longer,” said Richard Trotter, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore who teaches labor relations courses. “So this is a strike, yes, but it’s also a protest, which is quite interesting. The labor environment is such that the union leaders know that if they launched a prolonged strike with Hopkins, they’re not going to win.”

But a three-day strike could give the union some extra leverage when it returns to the bargaining table on Monday or over the weekend — at least, that’s the goal, according to union leaders, workers and labor relations experts.

“They want to show they mean business — that the workers are serious about their demands, but also respect the institution and don’t want to walk away from their responsibilities,” said Edward Gutman, who owns a mediation/arbitration practice in Baltimore and teaches labor arbitration at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. “Whether it works or not remains to be seen.”

Trotter said he thinks the defined-length strike is a good strategy and that if it is successful in nudging Hopkins officials to compromise further, it could become a more common tactic for union leaders.

“Given the current environment, which in general is unfriendly to organized labor, the defined strike may be an effective alternative to the pattern that exists now of doing nothing,” Trotter said. “We have very, very few strikes now. There was a time when I was growing up when strikes were very common.”

Additionally, Trotter said, the outcome of this strike might affect how unionized employees at other regional hospitals feel about their wages, and how their unions might proceed whenever their current contracts expire.

“What’s happening at Hopkins may be symptomatic of a ‘bubbling over’ for working people,” he said. “But that’s a long-term trend; I don’t think you’re suddenly going to have all these employees being very active.”

Wiley Rhymer, an environmental services employee at Johns Hopkins Hospital, is on the SEIU1199 bargaining committee. He says he doubts Hopkins will agree to the contract terms requested by the union. ‘They’re not budging,’ he says. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Wiley Rhymer, an environmental services employee at Johns Hopkins Hospital, is on the SEIU1199 bargaining committee. He says he doubts Hopkins will agree to the contract terms requested by the union. ‘They’re not budging,’ he says. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Carrietta Hiers, the 1199SEIU organizer leading the Hopkins campaign, said Wednesday morning she’s ready to continue negotiating after the strike and that she’s hopeful Hopkins will make a better offer after the dispute has played out on the public stage of Orleans Street.

“I would hope Hopkins would say, ‘Ok, we hear you. You really mean it. Let’s see what we can do,’” Hiers said. “But if they don’t, we’ll continue fighting. The workers will go back to work knowing that they stood up, and we’ll re-strategize. You know, we don’t want to be doing this.”

Hopkins officials declined to comment on specifics but spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said in a statement that the hospital is “confident we will resolve these negotiations in a fair and equitable way.”

“We are striving to balance several different priorities while recognizing that we have a finite pool of funds,” Hoppe said.

Over the past few weeks, Hopkins has consistently made incremental changes to its offer, such as boosting starting pay rates or phasing in annual rate hikes sooner.

But many workers said it’s not enough.

Wiley Rhymer, a member of the bargaining committee that negotiates on behalf of the 2,000 workers, said he doubts Hopkins will agree to the contract terms requested by the union.

Union officials are seeking to immediately establish a starting wage of $15 an hour for employees with at least 15 years of experience and, within four years, a starting wage of $14 for all employees.

Hopkins’ most recent offer would establish a $15 per hour wage for 15-year veteran workers, but not until 2018.

“They don’t hear us, or they’re just not listening,” Rhymer, a 38-year old father of four, said of Hopkins officials. “They’re not budging. So it’s hard to say right now whether they’ll make any movement. I just pray that they do.”