After weeks of talks, employees of Strong Memorial Hospital and UR approved new collective bargaining agreements on Wednesday night. The contract agreed upon provides major gains in wages, health insurance and training for SEIU workers.
Under the new contract, all employees will receive at least a 10 percent wage increase during the term of the agreement. Hospital employees will receive their first raise retroactive to June 1, and UR River Campus employees will receive their first raise on Oct. 6.
Additionally, employees will keep their fully paid health insurance package with the 1199 National Benefit Fund. The fund provides a comprehensive level of health care through Preferred Care. The loss of health care benefits under the original contract was an issue of central concern for SEIU employees, and it’s highly unlikely that workers would have agreed to the new contract if it hadn’t been adjusted to maintain these benefits.
Both union and management negotiators agreed to initiate cost saving programs in prescription or other areas in the contract’s second year. These measures will not affect the scope of coverage. All premium costs will continue to be paid by UR and Strong, making the plan free to union employees. They are the only employees at UR to have free health care.
UR also agreed to join the SEIU 1199 Upstate Training Fund to support educational, training and skills enhancement programs for union employees.
The settlements also achieved a common expiration date for both contracts. They will both expire in early October 2004.
According to Larry Alcoff, a representative of SEIU, the contract was unanimously approved by a SEIU committee of over 20 people before the actual vote.
The SEIU had previously given the University a ten day notice for a strike, which would have taken place on October 11, coinciding with Meliora Weekend. They withdrew the notice when the tentative agreement was reached last week.
Among the SEIU employees there was a strong sense of relief and vindication. Many workers had wanted to avoid striking but found the original contract proposal unacceptable.
Shirley Barnes, the head cook at Douglass Dining Center, said that she is glad that the university proposed the new contract, as opposed to just maintaining the original proposal. “It would’ve affected our families health,” she said, referring to the original proposal, “We wouldn’t have been able to pay for doctors visits or any other medical costs.”
“They tried to take away what we stand for,” UR housekeeper Wendel Broadhurst said. “I honestly feel that the university needs to realize just how important the workers are ? without us they don’t really have anything.”
Don Marthage, who has worked at Strong for 33 years, said, “What they originally had on the table was a joke ? it wasn’t even worth responding to.” He added that he was glad a strike was avoided because of the hardship it would have caused not only for workers, but for patients at Strong and students at UR.
Reaching the contract was facilitated by the hospital’s portion of union supported legislation passed earlier this year, which is expected to help pay for some of the cost.
Strong is currently receiving over $9 million from the NYS Health Care Reform Act’s Retention and Retraining Initiative. The new law was specifically designed to slow health care worker turnover and fund retraining. Turnover has risen dramatically among SEIU employees and hospital workers in general over the past two years, and the legislation will help alleviate the shortage of workers.
Many of the workers also commented on the importance of student support, particularly from the nascent UR Students for Social Justice, which helped organize a rally for the workers in front of Wallis Hall on Oct. 2.
“We really appreciate the students’ help, the day that they rallied with us made a great impact,” said Barnes. “It made them come back to the table.”
“We feel that this was a significant victory for the workers at Strong and UR,” said Alcoff. “While there’s still a lot to be accomplished, this is definitely a step in the right direction. Our workers dared to struggle, and their unity and strength carried us through.”
Muhlenberg can be reached at Dmuhlenberg@campustimes.org.