U workers fear merger approval

Joel Sawyer

With the merger between University Hospital and Clinic and Fairview Health System scheduled for Board of Regents approval next week, many unionized hospital workers are looking with dread and fear at the impact the deal will have on them.
“No one knows what’s going to happen with their jobs, and their wages,” said Ruth Bettendorf, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1164 representative.
When union members look for answers from University officials, Bettendorf said, it is difficult to get any. “No one’s running the store. It’s always we don’t know, or a committee’s looking into that.”
But John E. Erickson, director of employee relations and compensation for the University, disagrees. The unions have been apprised of “all the information we have at this time,” he said.
Erickson said he understands the concerns of union members but said the merger is an extremely complex process. “We’ve never been down this road before,” he said, referring to the merger of a public and private institution.
The merger is necessary, University officials say, if the University Hospital is to survive financially and also provide University doctors and students with the kind of research and educational opportunities they need.
If the deal goes through, unionized workers at the University Hospital will lose their union status and become non-union employees of Fairview Health System. For some union workers, that would most likely mean a decrease in pay and a decrease in benefits, or no job at all.
“The morale around the hospital is horrible because of the ass-backwards way that the (University) is doing this deal,” Bettendorf said. “We’re going to lose everything we’ve worked 20 years for.”
Fairview told union members that they can only afford to pay workers at market rates, which would mean a considerable loss in wages for 10 percent of University employees, according to a University report. Bettendorf said she thinks AFSCME workers will make up the majority of that 10 percent.
Gloria Bourguois, who has been a psychiatric assistant at University Hospital for 16 years, said that based on the figures she’s seen, her pay could decrease from $14.50 an hour to about $10.00 an hour. “I consider that just getting rid of me,” she said.
If the merger is finalized and workers face pay cuts, Bourguois said she and many of her colleagues would consider finding other jobs or starting their own businesses. Another option would be going on unemployment until similar paying jobs could be found, she added.
Bettendorf, who represents about 1,000 hospital paraprofessionals, said it is not just unionized workers who are frightened about job security and benefits. She said 400 employees have left the hospital in the last three months, “it’s been a mass exodus.
Representatives of the Teamsters and AFSCME began meeting with University officials Tuesday to negotiate the impact of the merger on union members.
AFSCME pulled out of negotiation in April to express its opposition to the merger and the direction of negotiations. But the union members began meeting with University officials again in early July.
Erickson said negotiations will be difficult and slow because some issues, such as severance pay, can only be dealt with by University officials. Other issues, such as hiring priority, must be considered by Fairview.
University officials do not have the power to commit Fairview to policies without Fairview’s approval, Erickson said. “But we do have the power to deal with our employees and to try to make the transition as smooth as possible with as little impact on their lives as possible.”
“The fundamental issue here is whether you think the hospital can survive or not,” Erickson said. If the choice is between providing relatively similar work for employees or offering no jobs, “then it’s a no brainer.”