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HUMAN SERVICES
Labor pains

BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI

Blame it on the crisis in our stateís human-services industry. The poor wages and working conditions that characterize the field (see "Paying Fair," News and Features, January 11) have sparked an ugly battle at the Boston-based Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC), where 55 social workers and clinicians have been fighting for their right to unionize.

For months, MSPCC workers at the agencyís Jamaica Plain office have been organizing to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 509, which represents thousands of human-service employees statewide. Workers began their drive last October out of frustration over poor conditions common to human-services providers across Massachusetts: meager pay (as low as $10 per hour) and high staff-turnover rates (up to 40 percent since October 2000). Explains Marie Pier Winters, an MSPCC physical therapist who works at the Amory Street location, "There is no real incentive to stay.... As a group, we thought we would have some power. Management would have to listen to our complaints. Thatís the point of a union."

Last April, Winters and 38 of her co-workers voted to join SEIU Local 509 by a four-to-one margin. But the newly elected union hasnít even been recognized by the MSPCC, which has 30 offices in cities such as Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield. Boston attorney Macon Magee, who represents the agency, says that MSPCC director Joyce Strom (who could not be reached for comment by press time) opposes the formation of a bargaining unit that represents one agency branch. Magee maintains that the single unit is "not appropriate for collective-bargaining purposes" because the 55 workers in JP carry the same job descriptions as their counterparts in other branches. By joining a union, they could negotiate different wages and working conditions. "If you have one group of employees operating under different policies," Magee adds, "then the rest of the organization becomes difficult to manage."

Itís a point that the MSPCC has already argued before the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ó to no avail. NLRB supervisor Scott Burson says the boardís Boston office has ruled that a bargaining unit consisting solely of JP workers is legally appropriate. On June 27, the NLRB even issued a complaint against the MSPCC for refusing to recognize what Burson calls "the certifiable election" of a chosen union. "We have found reason to believe the employer has violated the law," he adds. The NLRB in Washington, DC, is expected to hold a hearing on the MSPCC complaint in October.

As the NLRB complaint weaves through the legal process, workers and their union supporters have turned to public relations. Beginning this Thursday, August 9, dozens of workers plan to pump up the pressure on MSPCC board members by visiting their Boston and Cape Cod workplaces, where workers will demand that the MSPCC reverse its decision to ignore the union. The actions will culminate this Tuesday, August 14, at a morning picket in front of the Danvers-based Sheraton Ferncroft Hotel, where Strom is scheduled to give a keynote address during a conference for child-welfare activists.

Workers hope the events will force the MSPCC to drop its fight against the union and negotiate a fair contract, even though they suspect otherwise. Says Winters, "I think the agency is stalling. Itís just hoping all the strong supporters will disappear and the union will fade away."

Magee insists that the agency is not about to bust the union. In order to appeal the NLRB ruling on the JP workersí right to join SEIU Local 509, he says, the MSPCC must refuse to bargain with the newly elected unit and go through the labor-relations process. "There is no other way to have the courts review the appropriateness of this unit," he says. "MSPCC does not oppose unionism; it opposes the unit."

Suffice it to say, the ugly battle may get uglier. Chalk up another casualty to the deteriorating conditions in Massachusetts human services.

Issue Date: August 9 - 16, 2001