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Johns Hopkins strike
Johns Hopkins workers protest along Orleans Street in Baltimore on April 9, 2014. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

‘No one is budging’ in Hopkins labor dispute

First, they haggled. Then they went on strike. Then, they haggled again. And finally, this past weekend, they rallied.

But the thousands of service workers at the Johns Hopkins Hospital still haven’t reached a contract deal with their employer, despite months of negotiations, nor have they scheduled another bargaining date — and they’re getting frustrated.

“The [union] members, they’re getting angry, emotional,” said Wiley Rhymer, a Hopkins employee and member of the bargaining committee. “They’re getting rebellious. They want to go back out and strike, but they can’t afford it. They feel like they’re being neglected.”

Saturday’s rally — which brought more than 2,000 people, including celebrity guests, to the Inner Harbor — wasn’t necessarily intended to trigger action from the hospital, said Jim McNeill, a spokesman for the workers’ union, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

Its primary purpose, he said, was to put on a big show that would attract more attention to the issue and drum up support from the community and surrounding states. In that respect, McNeill and Rhymer said they thought the rally was a success.

But the lack of concrete progress stemming from the rally is still disappointing to many rank-and-file employees, said Rhymer, a 38-year-old father of four who makes about $11.19 an hour — more than some workers but low enough to qualify him for food stamps and Medicaid, he said.

“Nothing happened after the rally — no negotiations were set,” Rhymer said. “We are at an impasse. No one is budging. The union is planning their next steps as we speak.”

It’s not yet clear what those next steps will be. John Reid, 1199SEIU’s executive vice president, who is in charge of the union’s strategy, was not available for comment Monday because he was tied up in meetings to determine the plan of action, McNeill said.

Hopkins officials have been largely mum on the issue since the conflict bubbled to the surface in March. They have consistently said they are willing to continue negotiating, however, and that they’re working to find a compromise that’s “fair to everyone and reflects financial responsibility,” according to a written statement previously provided by a hospital spokeswoman.

“We are striving to balance several different priorities while recognizing that we have a finite pool of funds,” the statement read. “… Out of respect for our employees and for the bargaining process, we are negotiating directly with them outside of the public domain.”

Pamela Paulk, senior vice president for human resources, indicated to members of the news media on Saturday that Hopkins would return to the negotiating table, but she didn’t offer specifics.

Over the past several months, Hopkins has made a number of changes to its contract proposal, inching closer to the union’s requested terms. But Rhymer said it’s not enough.

Union officials are seeking to immediately establish a minimum wage of $15 per hour for employees with 15 years of experience and, within four years, a minimum wage of $14 per hour for all first-year employees. Hopkins’ most recent offer would establish a $15-per-hour minimum wage for 15-year veteran workers, but not until 2018.

Rhymer said workers are unimpressed by that concession, as well as by the hospital’s emphasis on its long-standing offer to help pay for employees to attend school to receive further training. He said the conditions of that offer make it tough for some workers to take advantage of the tuition assistance.

Workers are still being paid according to the terms of their last contract, which expired March 31, “so we want this [process] to end quickly and not drag out,” Rhymer said.

But that doesn’t mean workers are going to throw in the towel.

“Those of us on the negotiating team understand that this is a work in progress,” Rhymer said. “Our union leaders keep telling us, ‘Don’t get discouraged, this is how things go. This is the game they’re playing.’”

When asked if the union would step back from some of its demands, Rhymer said backing down would undermine their past efforts.

“The union doesn’t want to budge,” he said, “because if we budge, we’ve defeated ourselves.”