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Hopkins workers reject pact, begin strike

Service and maintenance workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital began a three-day strike Wednesday at 6 a.m. to protest what their labor union called “poverty wages at America’s No. 1 hospital.”

After the workers voted Tuesday to reject a contract Hopkins proposed on Monday, union representatives and hospital officials negotiated through the night in the hopes of averting the strike.

Those eleventh hour talks proved futile — union spokesman Jim McNeill said the hospital came back with a “very weak” counter-offer that the workers could not accept.

Most of the 2,000 workers represented by 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East voted throughout the day Tuesday on an offer by Hopkins that would raise wages by a maximum of 1.75 percent per year.

The bargaining committee wanted Hopkins to make “significant” changes to that proposal during the talks — which lasted until about midnight. If that didn’t happen, the workers said they would follow through with their previously planned strike.

Hopkins’ final offer was only a slight departure from its prior offer. The largest annual wage offered to some employees with years of experience would be 2 percent.

The strike began at 6 a.m. Wednesday on the hospital’s Baltimore campus and is scheduled to end Friday at 6 p.m.

Earlier Tuesday, McNeill said the workers’ bargaining committee recommended a “no” vote on the hospital’s proposal, and that he expected it will be rejected.

“We really want to settle this at the table,” McNeill said. “People are proud to work at Hopkins. They [didn’t] want to strike, but they feel they have to stand up for their families and for Baltimore. … And people seem really disappointed in [Hopkins’] proposal.”

Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe declined to comment Tuesday on specifics but reiterated a statement made last week, saying that officials were “working to reach a settlement that’s fair to everyone and reflects financial responsibility on the part of the hospital.”

Hoppe said the employees in the bargaining unit represent about 10 percent of Hopkins’ overall workforce.

“We want to assure our patients and their families that we are conducting business as usual at the Johns Hopkins Hospital,” she said. “In the event of a strike, we have contingency staffing plans in place to assure no disruptions to our patients and their families.”

The strike is the latest development in a contract dispute between the Baltimore hospital and the union. The most recent labor contract expired March 31, and negotiations have been ongoing for the past month.

Officials with 1199SEIU contend that the 2,000 workers are paid so poorly that some rely on food stamps and Medicaid to make ends meet. The starting salary for some workers is $10.71 per hour, although employees in other positions make $27.88 per hour.

The union is seeking to establish a minimum wage of $15 per hour for workers with at least 15 years of experience, to take effect within the first year of a four-year contract. They also want all workers’ pay to reach $14 an hour by the fourth year.

Hopkins’ most recent proposal fell short of those targets.

In the first year of the proposed contract, the starting salary for workers with at least 15 years of experience would increase to $13 an hour. McNeill estimated about 20 percent of the workers have that much experience.

The starting salary for workers with one year of experience would reach $12.25 an hour, by the year 2018.

“That’s just not a dramatic improvement for these workers,” McNeill said of the starting rates.

The hospital’s proposed contract would also establish a 1.25 percent increase to all starting wage rates. That hike would rise to 1.5 percent in year three. In years four and five, a 1.75 percent increase would go into effect.

“It’s really disappointing for people who are making so little that they have to be on food stamps, to only be offered 1.75 percent after five years,” McNeill said.

McNeill said the hospital has been “making extremely tiny moves” throughout negotiations.

“We’ve made a lot of compromise already,” he said. “We initially had the idea of getting $15 an hour for everyone, so scaling [our proposal] back to ask that only people with 15 years of experience get $15 an hour, that’s a significant compromise on our part. And I think it’s really time for [Hopkins] to move.”