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Justice for Healthcare Workers


Justice Needed for Hospital Workers
Bangor Daily News Op Ed by John Buell

Eastern Maine may well lose another of its economic linchpins with Georgia-Pacific's decision to close its Old Town mill. The loss of manufacturing jobs both in Maine and nationally was supposed to lead to an ever more productive, knowledge-based economy with rising wages for all. Most of Maine's new jobs in recent years, however, have offered scant compensation and little security. Maine workers and citizens need to ask what steps we can take to build a better future.

Historically, unions have played a vital role in assuring that all workers' compensation rose to reflect increases in productivity. For a variety of reasons, however, much of the post World War II union leadership adopted a narrow view of unions' purposes. They emphasized high wages for their own members, but they often demonstrated indifference to the unorganized sectors of the economy or even minorities within their own movement.

Here in Maine we now have examples of unionism and community activism that might redress some of these historic injustices. A group of laid-off workers, union members, and community activists met in the fall of 2001 after more than 1,000 workers in the Bangor area had just been laid off because of trade-related plant shutdowns. They formed Food and Medicine (FAM), a coalition whose guiding principle is that in the world's richest nation, no one should have to choose between food and medicine. FAM is committed to giving a voice to all those affected by corporate globalization, including laid-off workers, small business, and farmers.

After 9-11, FAM pushed Maine's senators to endorse health care support for workers who lost jobs to outsourcing. FAM also initiated a Union Supported Agriculture (USA) project, which brings unions and farmers together for mutual support.

Most recently, FAM has undertaken another significant campaign. It is encouraging community support for an effort by Eastern Maine Medical Center staff to form a union. The hospital administration maintains that only a small minority of workers is dissatisfied, yet it forbids discussion of unions on the job even as other non-job-related talk is allowed. Just as in its long, fruitless, and destructive struggle with its nurses, management once again has dug in its heels. As with the nurses, the courts may once again end up finding EMMC in violation of labor law.

Management's response is a tragedy for hospital staff, patients, and the larger community. Both in demographic and economic terms, one area of our economy that will grow even in the face of adverse trade policy is the health service sector. The U.S. population is aging and health technologies can accomplish more. Service-sector wages notoriously lag wages in manufacturing, but there is no iron law dictating that result. Low salaries in this sector reflect its generally nonunion and disproportionately female makeup.

Very few of the workers who are organizing make a living wage. Many work overtime every week just to get by. When one of the largest employers in eastern Maine copies Wal-Mart in its employee compensation norms and its draconian response to labor organizing, local businesses that depend on a solid consumer base also suffer. Management is being extraordinarily shortsighted. The good will and support of unions and small businesses in Maine over many years helped build this medical center. Their sacrifice is scorned and disrespected when board and administration deny employees the right to decide for themselves the merits of a union.

In an era of escalating medical costs, some may argue that the hospital cannot afford to pay its employees a living wage. Yet a closer look suggests that, as with much of the health care system, the problem is not with compensation of the lowest-level employees. Though EMMC is a nonprofit corporation, it includes among its many subsidiaries several very profitable entities. The hospital's parent corporation acts like aggressive, profit- driven conglomerates. Top management receives very large salaries and bonuses. The corporation proposed a $150 million investment in a new Waterville hospital no Waterville physician wanted while it refuses to pay its staff a living wage.

The community has a stake in this battle that is more than monetary. Hospitals are workplaces. Patients, like any customer, are best served when those who do the job have a voice in how that job is done. Hospitals confront increasing numbers of very sick patients, more complex patient care demands, and growing incidence of hospital-borne infections. Only a team approach can mitigate these problems. Staff members must have the right to know that when they detect and report problems with workplace stress, patient loads, or dangerous practices they will not be confronted with a short-term bean-counter mentality and arbitrary discipline.

If EMMC employees cannot even freely debate the role that a union might play in redressing grievances and solving workplace problems, they are being denied not only their democratic rights but the most elementary human respect. We all lose.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers wishing to contact him may e-mail messages to jbuell@acadia.net.

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Last modified: 2/18/2010

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