Hospital management, union prepare for labor negotiations

By Simon Shifrin

Management staff at the University of Chicago Hospitals has been engaging in a campaign of pressure and intimidation to dissuade members of Teamsters Local 743 from freely organizing to express their grievances and educate other members, according to stewards of the union.

Members of the union, which represents clerical, service, and maintenance workers at the hospital, have begun to informally discuss the issues they will likely address in upcoming contract negotiations, when their current four-year contract expires on July 12.

Over the past year, some members of the union have become rather vocal around campus, working closely with student groups to augment the presence of their voice. The current struggle of the union to achieve a fair contract is now, in the view of some members, very much tied to the larger campus environment (including collaboration with students), compensation that should be more in line with other workers at the University, and the sense that they should be able to freely express their grievances at an institution that highly values such a right.

Richard Berg, a steward in Teamsters Local 743 and an employee in the Environmental Services department at the University of Chicago Hospitals, became recognizable to many students when he rose to the podium at Rockefeller Chapel to express his union’s solidarity with students walking out of class on March 5 to protest the imminent war with Iraq.

His speech was, in fact, the product of a growing relationship between student activists and workers at the University. The Anti-Sweatshop Coalition worked closely with members of the union to produce a written resolution supporting the student walkout, which Berg read aloud during his speech. Ever since, the student group has engaged in an even closer dialogue with workers at the hospital, with members of the group frequently attending union meetings during work breaks in the basement of the hospital.

One recent collaboration between the two groups, a meeting that was entitled “How to Get a Good Contract” held on Sunday, April 27, invited students to learn about the process of negotiating a contract and encouraged workers to begin developing leadership within the union.

Members of the New Leadership slate–a group of workers that ran for office within the union and lost–arranged the meeting. They invited a speaker from Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a group devoted to supporting self-directed union activities, to discuss the challenges of contract negotiations. It was leading up to this meeting, however, that some workers began to grasp that a rough battle for a favorable contract lay before them, union members said.

The meeting, in fact, was relatively poorly attended compared to the often-crowded meetings at the hospital. According to union members and students who attended the event, hospital management intimidated some workers into not attending.

“Management made it clear to members that they did not want them to attend the meeting, and there could be consequences if they did. That intimidation was enough to scare them away,” said Berg, who is a member of the New Leadership slate. He received several e-mails from union members detailing what was said to them by hospital management but did not want to identify those members, fearing reprisal against them.

A senior member of the human resources department refused comment on all matters relating to unions at the hospital and their activity. A press spokesman for the hospital could not comment for this article before press time.

Students who attended the event–many of whom have worked with unions and labor support groups throughout the city–said that management’s pressure on the workers was conspicuous even at this gathering.

“Right when the meeting was starting, two security guards passed by and poked their heads in,” said Dan Lichtenstein-Boris, a second-year in the College. “They asked, ‘Is this that New Leadership Teamsters meeting? We’re just here to check it out.'”

Some union members clearly identified the men as security guards that they knew from the hospital, Lichtenstein-Boris and other attendees of the meeting said. The organizers of the event, however, never requested any security presence, Berg said.

” to see who’s going to these meetings. They’re trying to identify who are troublemakers. That’s what it seems to me,” said Lichtenstein-Boris, who saw the same tactic in action when he worked with union members at the University of Virginia, which he attended for a semester.

Other members of the Anti-Sweatshop Coalition also confirmed that they had seen this strategy used to intimidate workers in their collaboration with unions throughout the city.

“It’s a pretty common strategy,” said Ella Hereth, a third-year in the College, calling it a “scare tactic” to prevent union members from vocally expressing their demands without management influence. “People get scared. Labor law is complicated and difficult to understand. If you’re a worker in the hospital you don’t have time to be 100 percent up on your labor law.”

“A lot of people were upset, you could really tell. This is obviously not the first time they’ve seen that,” Hereth said, adding that a lot of workers came even though they knew that something like this might happen.

In addition to the security guards, a University of Chicago Police Department squad car was on patrol just outside Cobb Hall, where the event took place, meeting attendees said.

“Maybe they were there just sitting enjoying the weather. But put two and two together,” Lichtenstein-Boris said.

The University Police Department could not be reached before press time for comment regarding the patrol car.

Berg and several of his close allies in the union have attracted the attention of management for quite some time. In the last contract negotiations with Teamsters Local 743, the New Leadership slate provoked a movement to vote against the contract four times.

“The management knows that, and they target us,” Berg said.

Berg said that his outspokenness in the union has caused management to closely monitor his activities. Recently, Berg received a letter from a senior member of the human resources department that said that he was displaying “unapproved literature” on bulletin boards on hospital premises. While union members are allowed to post materials on approved bulletin boards and hand out literature to other members, a clause in their contract states, “no material or notices of a controversial nature shall be posted.”

The April 22 letter to Berg, a copy of which was obtained by the Maroon, states: “Any literature that has not been officially approved by the Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, or designee, will be immediately removed from UCH premises and discarded. Failure to comply with this policy may lead to corrective action, up to and including termination.”

Berg said that he has not altered in any significant manner the content of the literature he has continually posted and handed out and does not understand the recent targeting of his outspoken activities other than as an unlawful tactic of intimidation.

“Now what they’re saying is that they’ve expanded . Anything that we hand out to anyone, anytime, anywhere has to be approved by human resources,” Berg said.

Berg filed a complaint with the human resources department on April 25, requesting that they retract the letter. He met with members of the department for a hearing on the matter on May 15. His contract dictates that a complaint be addressed within 10 days, though as of May 29 he has not received a response.

Members of the Anti-Sweatshop Coalition, though not surprised that union members could face such tactics, are particularly distraught that they believe this is happening to University employees.

“The University thinks of itself as a community of faculty and students…but it should remember that the people that really make it run are the staff that work here,” Lichtenstein-Boris said. “They deserve not to be spied upon when they’re trying to get a better contract and really get the respect that they really deserve.”