July 22, 2011

UW Board of Regents welcome union members calling for justice on the UW Medical Center Call Center

The powerful University of Washington Board of Regents and new UW President Michael Young welcomed a delegation of Federation members to their 22nd floor meeting room Thursday as the Local 1488 members urged the regents to drop the university’s appeal of the state order reinstating call center workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The call center workers, formerly located at the UW-run Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, had their rights stripped last year when the university merged them with another call center operation in downtown Seattle.

That Wisconsin-style action took away the UW Medical contact call center workers’ right to voice concerns about patient care because they could no longer file grievances or hold labor/management meetings.

“We certainly want you to know we welcome your comments and you being here is most appreciated,” said Board of Regents Chairman Herb Simon to the millionaires and billionaires, captains of industry and philanthropists who make up the board. About 25 Federation members from as far away as Vancouver flanked the regents in their top-floor boardroom overlooking the campus and Lake Washington

While the atmosphere was cordial, the message was blunt about what the UW administration had done to the call center employees.

“I come before you today to ask you on behalf of the 40,000 workers I represent to intervene and encourage the University of Washington leadership to honor the contract that rightfully covers these workers, to drop the appeal of the PERC decision and to allow our members to work in an environment of dignity and respect,” Federation President Carol Dotlich told the regents.

“We’ve been through a lot,” call center member Regina Pugh told the Board of Regents. “We’ve been stripped of things, but our main focus is our patients.”

After the meeting, the union leafleted outside the UW’s Meany Hall where the exclusive Presidents’ Club held a reception to welcome Young as the new UW president.

“It’s hard to believe this has happened here,” Dotlich earlier told the board. “The University of Washington is home to the Harry Bridges Labor Center, home to many activist groups who are encouraged to get involved in social justice issues….

“These workers that I’m talking about have no other forum except this one because they no longer have collective bargaining rights.”

The university fired many of the call center employees, ruined morale and overall reduced the quality of patient care, Dotlich said.

The Public Employment Relations Commission ordered the university to restore the call center workers’ bargaining rights.

But on June 13 “the university appealed and because it’s in appeal are again denying these workers their collective bargaining rights,” Dotlich said.

“Management is refusing to engage in talks with the union, doesn’t honor its obligations to the workforce and is denying the workers a voice at work…

“It’s created a chilling effect and a hostile workplace. It undermines employee efforts to improve patient care standards and forces workers to publicize the mistreatment, eroding patient confidence in University of Washington Medicine.”

With no ability to discuss workload concerns at the bargaining table, call center workers are seeing about 5,000 patients a month hang up while on hold waiting to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Pugh said operators are expected to take 14 to 18 calls an hour, or 70 a day.

“We are being told to triage our patients over the phone,” she said. “We are not nurses. We are not doctors….

“Sometimes, we are all that the patients have to talk to….(and) it’s not good patient care.”

Pugh said she was representing the scores of other workers who felt too intimidated by their management to come. “Some were even told not to come,” she said. “I think that’s sad.”

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