Workers win gains at N.Y. hospital

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — After a long battle, SEIU Locals 1199 and 200 have successfully renegotiated their collective bargaining agreements with Strong Memorial Hospital and the associated University of Rochester (UR).

“We achieved our goals of maintaining our health benefits, improving wages, securing year-round employment for campus workers, and enhancing educational opportunity,” said Shirley Barnes, a 22-year employee at the university.

The union victory comes some five months after talks between Strong Memorial Hospital/UR and unions broke off. The union contracts originally expired Oct. 2. They were extended through Oct. 30 in the hopes of an agreement. But then the university pulled back from its contract offer, said Bruce Popper, chief negotiator for the unions.

The collective bargaining agreements cover 1,000 employees at Strong Memorial Hospital and 200 employees at the University of Rochester.

Wages and health insurance were the top issues. Union members sought to keep their health benefits and obtain a modest wage increase. Service employees are among the lowest paid workers at both locations.

Under the previous contract, the workers had received health care benefits for themselves and their families through the National Benefit Fund at no cost. The hospital wanted to pass along a health care rate increase of 4 percent to the workers.

On Nov. 11, over 400 Service Employee International Union members participated in a picket line to protest the stalled contract negotiations and the threat to their health care benefits. The picket was supported by students and many other activists. On Nov. 29 the two parties announced they were returning to the negotiating table with the help of a federal negotiator.

Following a long fight and a tough negotiation process, the SEIU announced an agreement on March 17. The agreement approved by the workers will be retroactive to Oct. 3. The contracts contain a 2.75 percent wage increase for current employees and a secondary pay scale for workers hired after April 3.

The contract also continues the free, comprehensive health benefits. There is also a new training and educational fund, which replaces the outdated employee tuition program, and improvements in job security for campus workers during college breaks.