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Greater SE hospital urged to ensure public bailout funds not misspent

(Published September 9, 1999)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

Local labor leaders and some members of D.C. City Council have expressed concern that city tax dollars intended to prop up financially ailing Greater Southeast Community Hospital may be instead helping to pay the costs of fighting union-organizing efforts by the hospitalís workers.

"Using highly paid hospital administrators to chase workers off the hospital grounds cannot be a cost-effective or financially responsible allocation of precious District resources," wrote Robert Moore, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in a recent letter to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Moore was complaining about alleged widespread and possibly illegal interference by Greater Southeast management employees in union organizersí efforts to educate about 450 of the hospitalís employees who are not medical professionals about their right to choose whether they want a union to represent them in collective bargaining.

The workers won recognition of the SEIU to be their bargaining agent in a 198-100 vote on Aug. 24, supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. Within the past year, nurses at the hospital also voted to unionize, and they are now represented by the D.C. Nurses Association.

A hospital spokeswoman referred all inquiries regarding the union organizing effort to Greater Southeastís chief human resources officer, Nancy Hill-Davis, who could not be reached for comment.

Greater Southeast, the largest employer in Ward 8 with 1,300 workers, sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors in May to keep its doors open and on the same day received a pledge from Mayor Williams of up to $8.5 million in city financial assistance in the form of loans, loan guarantees or advances. The city recently lent the hospital $3.1 million.

"The financial assistance provided by the cityÖwas intended to ensure that the hospital can meet payroll and continue to provide the patient services needed by the community while the hospital is reorganized," Joslyn N. Williams, president of the AFL-CIOís Metropolitan Washington Council, wrote last month in a letter to Mayor Williams (no relation). The labor leader urged the mayor to seek assurances from Greater Southeast officials "that every penny of this money is spent prudently and only on the services and structure necessary to ensure that patient care is not compromised in this difficult time."

The labor councilís president expressed "disappointment" on the eve of Labor Day weekend that Mayor Williams had not responded to his letter. A spokeswoman for the mayor, who was out of town, said "itís just a matter of time before that gets in the works" after The Common Denominator inquired about the mayorís lack of response and provided the mayorís press office, at their request, with a faxed copy of Joslyn Williamsí letter to the mayor.

"The understanding is that the bankruptcy court judge decides how the money is spent and they review any request the hospital makes to spend money," said mayoral spokeswoman Sherone Joyner.

D.C. City Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, in an Aug. 17 letter to Dr. George Gilbert, the hospitalís president and chief executive officer, requested "immediate attention" to providing her office with assurances "that no funds provided by the District government have been or will be used to defeat the rights of employees to organize." A spokesman for the council chairman said he could not immediately determine whether Cropp had received a response.

Councilmen Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, and Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, who also both provided their visible support to the SEIU organizing effort, could not be reached for comment.

Emilie Junge, who coordinated the Greater Southeast organizing campaign for SEIU, called the pro-union vote "a huge victory" for the union. The SEIU represents more than 6,000 health care workers in the District and Maryland, including workers at Georgetown University Medical Center and George Washington University Hospital.

"We have not won a hospital organizing campaign in the District of Columbia for a long time, and the community support was an important factor," Junge said, noting that many D.C. churches, neighborhood leaders and union locals provided support for the effort.

Junge said she is hopeful, now that the union has been formally recognized, that Greater Southeast officials will "sit down and begin to take us seriously and bargain a contract, rather than trying to delay." However, she voiced concern that a member of the union organizing committee, whom she declined to identify other than calling him a "key activist," was fired from his hospital job the week after the vote to unionize occurred.

"We hope thatís not a sign of how theyíre going to be dealing with it," she said.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator