On June 1, 2002, the contract between local Service Employees International Union 1199 Upstate and Strong Memorial Hospital expired, and has been extended several times since then. Employee and management negotiations since May have been attempting to reach a new agreement, but have been unable to do so.

The extended contract will expire near Meliora Weekend, arguably the biggest and most important UR event of the year.

The local SEIU 1199 Upstate Union currently has approximately 1,000 members employed at Strong Memorial Hospital, in addition to another 200 employees of the University of Rochester who are members of SEIU Local 200 United. Both groups are on the UR payroll, and their contracts are almost identical.

Charles Dye, who is the head of Labor Relations at Strong Hospital and is currently negotiating for management, stated that both the university and the SEIU are serious about their proposals, and said that the union’s proposal is unreasonable. “[Their proposal] far exceeds what is necessary for the bargaining unit,” he said.

At the present time, Strong Memorial Hospital is the only profitable hospital in upstate New York, posting profits of $25 million and $18 million in the past 2 years, meaning that they have acquired a surplus of $43 million. The Hospital is under the jurisdiction of UR, which is the region’s second largest employer.

Additionally, via the Healthcare Reform Act of 2002, Strong has received $9.4 million which can only be used to add additional resources to pay for extra staff, higher wages, higher benefits and training over a 3 year period. The bill, which gave $1.8 billion to hospitals nationally, is designed to alleviate the extremely high turnover rate for nurses and healthcare workers and the projected shortage of these workers in the coming years.

Bruce Popper, the Executive Vice President and Communications Director of 1199 SEIU Upstate, said, “The ability to pay has never, ever been an issue at Strong Hospital. This is the most profitable hospital in New York State year in and year out.”

Popper stated that the current goal of the union in these negotiations is to maintain a living wage for its workers, maintain their health benefits under the 1199 National Benefit Fund and for Strong Hospital to join the 1199 Training Fund which finances grants and helps fund training programs.

Popper, who has negotiated on every SEIU contract at the university since 1978, said, “Our members could have had higher wages, and the UR has never negotiated with us when it wasn’t in terms of total cost of wages and benefits.”

The university’s current offer is a two-year contract with a wage increase of one percent the first year and zero percent the second. At that rate the Union claims that they can’t continue to provide benefits, which would mean the National Benefit Fund is cancelled and that they would revert to the UR plan. The Union has calculated that a lower level of benefits would cost workers $1.57 an hour, in effect driving wages back to 1993 levels. Currently the average full-time salary of a bargaining unit employee is $22,500.

One reason that salaries are so low is that SEIU has sacrificed in order to maintain their health care benefits under the National Benefit Fund, which they have had for the past 27 years and covers around 2,800 people locally. In the Union’s view, there is no doubt that it is by far the best plan available and a crucial part of helping people raise a family on such small incomes.

“Ninety-three cents of every dollar that you put into this fund pays for a kid’s vaccine or a doctors visit or an x-ray or a hospitalization. Some worker or their family member benefits” said Popper. “You can maximize the benefit and the standard of living of a worker better by putting a dollar into the benefit fund and getting ninety-three cents of it back in a service.”

“If you put that dollar in a worker’s paycheck they only end up with sixty to seventy cents of it,” he continued.

Under the current proposal being put forth by the university, the union would be legally obligated to cut benefits because of their inability to pay for them.

“It’s a choice,” Popper said, “but it’s a choice that our members should be able to make and not be dictated.”

When asked about the legitimacy of the university’s offer, Dye said, “While we think that it is a reasonable offer, it is not necessarily our final offer.”

Mike Johnson, a Building Service Worker at Strong Hospital, said, “It’s like being stabbed in the back. How can you sit there and look across the table at me and tell me that my job isn’t worth more than 22 grand a year?” He added, “Look at the degree of work that they want from you. How can you feel you have job security when you feel unappreciated?”

Muhlenberg can be reached at dmuhlenberg@campustimes.org.

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