Medical team rushing a sick patient to the emergency wardBoth the Maryland State House of Delegates and Senate voted on March 14 in favor of new legislation that will provide equal labor protections to 5,000 workers at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

The proposed law, an updated version of the Equality for Maryland Caregivers Act backed by 1199SEIU last year, solves a dilemma for UMMC workers, who are not covered by either federal or state labor boards. In Maryland, private hospitals fall under the National Labor Relations Board and public hospitals fall under the Maryland Labor Relations Act. The University of Maryland Medical Center is governed by neither.

“The vote today brings us one step closer to what is fair and just for thousands of workers in Baltimore,” said Mary L. Washington, D-Baltimore City, a sponsor of the bill. “As elected representatives of the people of Maryland, we have a responsibility to insure that all residents have equal protection under the law.”

UMMC workers, who testified and met with state legislators last year, reported a variety of management actions that at any other institution would be labor violations. These actions included employees being banned from discussing a union or union activities, workers being given the impression of surveillance as they attempted to explore collective bargaining options, and workers being threatened with a decline in their work environment if a union is present.

As a result of their lobbying, the State Senate Finance Committee asked Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler to issue an opinion on the matter, which he did in November 2013. The opinion concluded that the Maryland General Assembly does have the authority to enact legislation subjecting UMMC to Maryland’s collective bargaining law.

“When caregivers at hospitals have a fair and just workplace, where their rights are respected, they can ensure the best quality care for their patients,” said John Reid, executive vice president for the Maryland-DC region of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. “It remains a right in this country to choose a union voice without fear of retribution and UMMC workers deserve the same right.”

The University of Maryland Medical Center is one of the largest employers in Baltimore and is considered the flagship hospital of the state-wide UMMS system, which includes more than a dozen facilities. UMMC is unique within the UMMS system because it is the only hospital under the direct control of the system-wide board appointed by the governor. Other University of Maryland Medical System hospitals are governed by their own separate boards. When 1199SEIU testified in support of the legislation last year, the union displayed a large poster-sized map showing every hospital in the state, with only UMMC standing out as having no state or federal labor protections.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1104 and House Bill 1545, University of Maryland Medical System Corporation – Governance – Medical Center Employees, attempts to solve this inequity by allowing UMMS to create a separate organization and board, not appointed by the governor, to oversee the University of Maryland Medical Center and thereby allow the National Labor Relations Board to have jurisdiction over any claims or petitions presented by UMMC employees.

Len Lucchi, legislative counsel for 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, cautioned in his written testimony to the Maryland House and Senate committees that the NLRB “does not issue advisory opinions, so there is no guarantee” that the legislation, if it becomes law, will result in NLRB jurisdiction over UMMC. He added, though, that the proposed law “is narrowly crafted so that it is likely that there will be NLRB jurisdiction.” If this legislative remedy does not work, Lucchi said in his statement, 1199SEIU “will come back and see you again.”

The legislation will now continue through the General Assembly’s procedural process before it is sent to the governor’s office for signature.

“This is a very important piece of legislation,” said Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, sponsor of UMMS legislation for two sessions of the General Assembly. “It has taken a year but, in the end, we were able to make sure that UMMC workers have these labor protections.”