Boston Business Journal

December 4, 1998

Construction Union Targeting Health Care Workers

Ted Griffith Journal Staff

SOMERVILLE - A union that traditionally represents construction workers is expanding its ranks with an ambitious new plan to sign up thousands of health care workers in New England.

Within the last few months, the Laborers' International Union of North America has picked up more than 600 health care workers in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. At the end of October, 250 employees at Somerville Hospital joined the Washington, D.C.-based union.

The new Somerville Hospital members include clerical employees, food service workers and nurses' aides.

Bill Goodrich, the New England coordinator for the union, said the Laborers' International is also pushing to unionize workers at two other Massachusetts hospitals, which he declined to name.

Goodrich said the union expects to add members at nursing homes in Massachusetts as well. Already, employees at nursing homes in Connecticut and Rhode Island have voted to join the union. "People will be seeing a lot more of us," he said.

Goodrich admits the idea - a construction workers' union representing health care employees - sounds offbeat. But he said his union has the resources and experience to negotiate good contracts for health care employees. Laborers' International reports membership of more than 750,000.

"We're a strong union that will fight for workers' interests," Goodrich said.

He said the union's goal is to sign up 1,000 health care workers annually in New England during the next few years.

Founded in 1903 to represent construction workers, the union in later years increased its membership by branching out into other fields, including government and health care. Goodrich said the union now has six full-time staff members devoted to organizing health care workers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Frustrated with the growing emphasis on the bottom line in health care, has pushed hospital and nursing home employees to unionize, Goodrich said. "With the staffing cuts and reductions in pay, they feel like things have really changed," he said. "It's not like 15 or 20 years ago when you could really spend time with the patients."

In addition to better wages and benefits, Goodrich said his union can negotiate contracts for health care workers that give them greater influence over the decision making at a hospital or a nursing home.

Ray Clark, director of labor relations for Somerville Hospital, said he thinks the workers there voted to unionize because they are hoping for an increase in pay. Clark said he doesn't expect the union will have a major impact on the way the hospital operates.

Alan Sager, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health, said health care workers are probably turning to unions as a reaction to consolidation in the health care industry. If the mergers continue, the unionizing may increase, he said.

"People don't join unions without very strong motives," Sager said. "We're having a lot of movement without progress in health care. That movement is often dizzying to workers in the trenches."


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