Dozens of workers rallied outside GW Hospital Wednesday to demand better treatment and a new union contract for hospital employees.
After 15 months of meetings with housekeeping and dietary staff, GW Hospital scrapped the contract that had been drafted and requested that the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union – which represents dietary and maintenance workers – start all negotiations from scratch, union representatives said. Workers said they rallied to demand an end to the contract stalemate.
The union organized the march on Valentine’s Day, urging the hospital to “put the heart back into health care.”
Yahnae Barner, the acting vice president of the local chapter of SEIU, said the union’s top priorities are negotiating higher wages, better health benefits and fair treatment of employees. She said hospital management has stymied the negotiations with anti-union tactics, including bringing in an anti-union lawyer and threatening to stop allowing workers to have union dues taken out of their pay checks.
“The front line employees here have been at the negotiation table for over a year with little to no movement,” Barner said. “They basically said last month that they were going to stop dues deductions out of folks’ checks, which really just breaks down the movement.”
Barner said the decision to halt dues deductions, which pay for union representation, was a hostile move by the hospital and was designed to halt future negotiations.
Historically, she said the hospital and the union have had an effective working relationship and negotiate in a timely manner, but that talks this time have yielded no results despite months of negotiations and the relationship has soured.
“It’s important to show management that they’re strong, that they deserve a living wage, that they deserve a raise,” Barner said.
She added that negotiations between the union and the hospital are planned for Feb. 27, but hospital management will dictate whether the talks are successful.
“If they come to the table and they’re willing to negotiate in good faith then we’ll do that,” Barner said. “If not, stay tuned.”
A spokeswoman for GW Hospital did not immediately return a request for comment.
Sonya Stevens, an environmental service worker at the hospital, said employees are pushing for a better contract that will allow better health care benefits for employees.
“Each time we go to the table, they always add more and more and more when we’re just trying to get through the contract,” Stevens said. “But each time we get to the wages, they stop us.”
Stevens added that the contracts should address the shortage of workers at the hospital and that negotiators are trying to “shut down” any part of the contract that doesn’t benefit the hospital’s management.
Stevens said management and hospital workers reconfigure their contracts every four years, but the last negotiation lasted just three days. She claimed that management has refused to discuss any economic changes to their contracts.
“They want to be able to dismiss us when they want to,” she said. “They want to be able to tell the workers, ‘If you feel that a job we’re telling you to do is unsafe, you’ve got to do it anyways.'”
Stevens said workers encounter unsafe conditions, especially the men who clean the loading docks. The hospital previously provided work shoes for those workers, but in the last year they’ve had to put plastic trash bags over their legs and feet to protect them from dirt and rats, she said.
Marcia Hayes, a hospital housekeeper, said workers feel insulted by the hospital’s tough stance and they are demanding concessions in the new contact.
“It’s been a bad experience,” she said. “They’re going to try to fight us to the end and drag this thing out until we get tired. But we’re not going to get tired. We’re going to fight.”