Whittier Street staff win the union

July 2, 2018

Judy Heithmar reports on a successful union organizing drive at Boston’s Whittier Street Health Center, despite management’s all-out attempt to intimidate employees.

WORKERS AT the Whittier Street Health Center in Boston won a major victory to unionize their professional staff and join 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, becoming the first in the state to do so.

Of 300 workers at Whittier Street Health Center, 75 now are eligible to join the union. Social workers, behavioral health specialists, nurses, doctors and other staff will now be able to negotiate a contract.

Sherar Andalcio, a physician who was terminated for arbitrary reasons from Whittier (an “at-will” employer), describes what at Whittier has been like:

Working at Whittier was terrifying for many, if not all of us. Morale was always low, staff at all levels were constantly planning their exit. This was because we worked in an environment of intimidation and fear. If we stood up for our colleagues, false accusations were made against us, and we were charged with being insubordinate. We were denied proper training to take care of, for example, HIV-positive or Hepatitis C patients.

If we asked questions during meetings that did not bode well with management, we were sent intimidating e-mails. There were often not enough support services, or support services were not implemented in a productive way. Whittier was understaffed. Many of us were victims of wage theft unless we noticed the errors in our pay. We were often not paid in a timely manner for vacation, sick or bereavement time despite being approved. We would have to constantly check our pay, and when errors were noted, and only if they were noted, we would be paid, but only after arguing with management.

Workers at the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, Massachusetts, celebrate a hard-fought union victory
Workers at the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, Massachusetts, celebrate a hard-fought union victory (1199SEIU Mass.)

This victory comes after a long and hard-fought battle. It started with just a few workers, who remained very secretive as they collected the number of authorization cards needed to have an election. Meetings were held where workers could come and learn more about the process and why a union was needed.

Nurse practitioner Caitrin MacDonald, one of the lead organizers of the campaign, knew too well the danger of the organizing efforts being exposed: “There is a constant and pervasive sense of fear and dread knowing that any desire to express dissatisfaction or suggestions for improvements will be met with either antagonism or outright retaliation.”

It didn’t take long for word to reach the administration, which then organized an all-out, anti-union fear campaign. Suddenly, workers faced an onslaught of anti-union rhetoric, from constant fearmongering e-mails to mandatory sit-down meetings with management in an effort to curb the growing support for unionizing.

CEO Frederica Williams immediately hired prominent anti-union attorney Katherine Lev, of Lev Labor, and Jeffrey Hirsch, of Hirsch Roberts Weinstein (HRW).

Hirsh’s website boasts of helping “non-union clients remain union-free by developing innovative management, communication, and training strategies,” and gloats, “HRW has helped dozens of employers successfully defeat union organizing drives while avoiding the ‘union busting’ label.”

THE MOST egregious attack came six days before the June 20 vote, when 20 workers, a majority of whom had been exposed as supportive of unionizing, were fired.

In the middle of the day, as providers were in the midst of seeing patients, they suddenly realized their badges had been deactivated and e-mail accounts shut down because they had just been terminated. A few were not working that day and received their termination notice by a phone call and were told not to return.

The behavioral health department was hit the hardest. In the blink of an eye, the department shrank from 12 to four clinicians. Williams cited “funding issues” as the reason for the firing. (Williams herself makes close to half a million dollars in salary each year, while the rest of staff, which represent the heart and soul of patient care, makes a tiny sliver of that.)

The fired clinicians weren’t going without a fight. The next day, along with patients, community members and other supporters, the workers held a protest outside of the health center, demanding their jobs back.

Two days later, the union got word that all of the fired workers would be reinstated. But a date wasn’t given for when they could return. When the workers attempted to enter Whittier to go back to work, they were told they were trespassing and needed to leave.

At the same time, Williams was holding a mandatory all-staff meeting in a last-ditch effort to convince staff to vote against unionizing. A further backlash ensued, and workers were finally told they could return to work on June 20, in time for the historic vote.

The vote went 50-10, overwhelmingly in favor of the union. As Andalcio put it, “This was a victory for workers everywhere. When labor is exploited, it harms everyone, especially when it comes to health care. When we can organize and take back control of our work and empower ourselves, everyone wins.”

This victory is especially significant coming before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus V. AFSCME Council 31 case, which weakens the right of unions to collect union dues. Today, the need to build rank-and-file union organization and win more workers to joining unions is crucial.

Workers at Whittier have a lot to be proud of. “Our union now brings 75 more workers under a larger umbrella of unionized workers who can support or give voice to disenfranchised workers and labor rights across this country,” said MacDonald.

After years of hiding in the shadows out of fear and exploitation, workers at Whittier Street Health Center can hold their heads high and know that they have set an example for workers across Boston and beyond.

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