When Jason McPherson arrived at work at Baltimore’s University of Maryland Medical Center last November, there was the usual huddle of caregivers called by the head nurse to provide updates about patient care. But on that day, rather than discuss patients, the nurse announced that there would be a ban on mentioning anything about joining a union or union activities at the workplace.
Francine Fields, a cytotechnologist at UMMC, remembers the sense of surveillance by cameras and individuals when she and her co-workers wanted to explore collective bargaining options last year. “In many instances, the atmosphere was an atmosphere of fear, an atmosphere of uncertainty.”
Because of these kinds of violations of their labor rights, McPherson and Fields are among several UMMC workers who have stepped forward to provide testimony in support of the Equality for Maryland Caregivers Act. The legislation, which is being considered by the Maryland General Assembly, would grant caregivers at UMMC the same labor protections enjoyed by the vast majority of American workers and by workers at every other facility in the University of Maryland Medical System.
Currently, UMMC is a quasi-private and quasi-public institution and is not subject to rules of either the National Labor Relations Board or the Maryland Labor Relations Act. The board of the statewide hospital system is appointed by the governor, and the system receives 58 percent of its funding from public sources.
“This bill does not impose collective bargaining,” said Leonard L. Lucchi, 1199SEIU state legislative director, testifying in support of the bill before the House Appropriations Committee. “Rather, it gives workers at the University of Medical Center the same rights of redress as every other hospital in the State and the same rights to organize.”
This lack of labor protections at UMMC is often evident, according to workers. They report a variety of violations, including surveillance or the impression of surveillance as they attempt to explore collective bargaining options, threats with a diminishment of their work environment if they join a union and, as McPherson said, being told that they could not discuss a union at the workplace.
“The experience of caregivers at UMMC is proof positive of the need for this legislation,” said Vanessa Johnson, 1199 vice president for new organizing for Maryland/DC. “The University of Maryland Medical System must be more transparent and accountable to the people of Maryland." This means people like Fields and her co-workers. Five years from retirement, Fields says that she is taking a stand for the Equality for Maryland Caregivers Act so that younger workers at UMMC, who have their whole careers in front of them, have basic labor protections.
“I just want the University of Maryland Medical Center to consider that they have a number of great employees and that we rely on that institution for our livelihood,” Fields said. “We would like for that institution to recognize us as a part of them and not separate. “There are things we feel that, if a union was a part of our existence there, we could make better,” she added. “We could make the playing field fair.”