Hospital employees rally for contract

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They posted signs around the hall, affixed stickers to their shirts, tied purple and gold balloons to the podium, and chanted vigorously in a crowded semicircle.


With earnest enthusiasm and determination, members of the Service Employees International Union at Washington Hospital rallied around their cause Wednesday: a fair labor contract.


“What do we want?” shouted Zach Zobrist, SEIU vice president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.


“Contract!” the crowd retorted.


“When do we want it?”


“Now!”


The union, representing 400-plus service workers at the hospital – about one-fourth of the 1,700 employed there – had a spirited rally Wednesday afternoon in the banquet room at Alpine Lanes in Washington. An audience of about 120 SEIU members and supporters heard and cheered the speakers, including state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil Township, and Zobrist.


With many wearing union colors – purple and gold – and bearing stickers proclaiming “RESPECT Our Union Our Rights,” the crowd expressed its desire for a new contract – the existing one will expire today – while firmly opposing health care concessions they said the hospital is seeking.


Officials at Washington Hospital could not be reached for comment.


The union also said starting salaries for some jobs would be lowered and that ending the seniority-based structure of the union has been proposed.


On Monday, the SEIU rejected management’s latest contract proposal then notified the hospital a strike notice of Feb. 12.


“They say cutback, we way fight back,” union members and supporters shouted in unison.


“None of us wants to strike,” said Brenda Fields, a unit secretary and 14-year employee from Washington. “We want to keep the hospital moving. But at the same time, we have to stand up for ourselves. They want to raise health-care coverage so high, it will be out of reach for some workers.”


“We have to have health care and it has to be affordable,” said Tina Harding of Bentleyville, a unit secretary with 8 1/2 years in at the hospital. “We can’t afford what the CEO is paying. If he can pay it, more power to him. We can’t.”


Cindi Ellis, a nursing assistant, said: “We are the heart and soul of Washington Hospital. If you don’t have us, what do you have?”


Referring to out-of-staters attracted to the gas and oil industry here, White asked the audience, “How many Texas license plates did you see in the parking lot?”


“None.”


“The people in this room are the backbone of the Washington County community,” White said. “This is what the trenches look like. People here are not looking for extraordinary wages, but fair ones.


“If you want a strong economy and good jobs, they should be for everybody.”


Zobrist, who lives in Pittsburgh, and members of the SEIU negotiating team arrived a little late because of talks with management Wednesday. It was the eighth session since early December, with the final scheduled negotiations taking place today.


“We’re certainly prepared to negotiate any date until Feb. 12,” Zobrist said.


The sessions, he said, have been lengthy – about seven hours Wednesday, 10 on Tuesday. Zobrist would not say whether there was progress. “We want the workers to have affordable health care.”


So does Sally Berdine of Richeyville, a housekeeping utility worker with 18 years of service. She also is acting president of the hospital’s SEIU chapter.


“We want fair wages for a fair day’s work,” she said. “People say they’re afraid of Obamacare. I’m afraid of Washington Hospital care.”



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