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« More than 800 Workers at Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center Make History with Vote to join 1199SEIU | Main | Healthcare groups push for federal bailout funds »

Deal paves way for union

Excerpt from Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who supported SEIU in its successful effort to unionize home health workers last year, said in a statement, “Caregivers perform one of the most critical roles in helping the sick, but their services are some of the most undervalued. Through this commitment between Caritas Christi and 1199SEIU, everyone involved in delivering quality healthcare to the people of Boston will benefit.”

Dr. Ralph de la Torre, chief executive of Caritas Christi, also hailed the agreement. “We’re breaking down fences,” he said. “This is a new era of cooperation.”

The service employees union now represents about 900 employees in Caritas Christi’s Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton, while the Area Trades Council - which also signed the agreement - represents about 35 employees at the chain’s flagship, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston.

The service employees union launched an effort to unionize Boston’s large hospitals about two years ago. The campaign has focused largely on Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. SEIU’s goal is to unionize the entire hospital, rather than just individual trades, such as electricians or nurses.

Strategically, the union has sought to mobilize public opinion against Beth Israel, as opposed to just campaigning to win over employees. It has run advertisements critical of Beth Israel and has targeted its chief executive, Paul Levy.

Mike Fadel, executive vice president of 1199SEIU, said about half of Caritas Christi’s 13,000 employees could ultimately be organized.

Asked if a union workforce would translate into higher wages, Fadel said, “This could lead to improvements in general for patients, for workers, for the healthcare system, and the community.”

He also hinted that Caritas Christi might benefit from the union’s political might.

“We will work jointly around issues like healthcare funding,” Fadel said.

That could mean joint lobbying for increased payment from MassHealth, the state and federal Medicaid program that provides medical coverage for low-income and disabled patients.

The agreement to be unveiled today is not unique. The SEIU local signed a similar agreement with a large group of hospitals in the New York City area about 10 years ago, and in 2006, it signed a pact with Cape Cod Healthcare, which has two hospitals.

The success of the agreement with Caritas Christi will depend largely on the economy, said Jeff Toner, principal of Dietz Creative Communications, a Kennebunk, Maine, firm that advises hospitals and unions on organizing issues.

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