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Union eyes possible hospital merger to organize workers

A large labor union is seizing on merger negotiations between Boston Medical Center and Tufts Medical Center as an opportunity to increase its membership among hospital workers.

The Service Employees International Union Local 1199 is trying to organize about 1,000 Tufts workers in service, clerical, and technical jobs, from housekeepers to surgical technicians. The union already represents such workers at Boston Medical Center.

SEIU’s push to organize at Tufts comes as activists around the country prepare to rally Tuesday to urge employers to pay at least $15 an hour. In Boston, the Fight for $15 movement plans to march past universities, property managers, fast food chains, and health care providers. Tufts Medical Center is on the route.

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Union organizers are using both the Fight for $15 event and merger talks to launch an organizing campaign at Tufts Medical Center. BMC and Tufts have not yet agreed to merge, but they are working to complete a deal this year.

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The union sent a letter to leaders of the two hospitals, asking them to commit to supporting workers’ rights to organize

“It’s a historic moment for these two vital institutions,” said Veronica Turner, executive vice president of 1199SEIU, which includes 52,000 health care workers in Massachusetts. “Our goal is to make sure the missions of the hospitals are upheld through the merger process and that workers have a voice in the process.”

Local 1199 has members at dozens of hospitals and other health care businesses across Massachusetts. In 2009, the union reached an agreement with the former Caritas Christi Health Care -- now Steward Health Care System -- in which the hospital chain agreed not to interfere with workers’ efforts to unionize. SEIU later organized workers at several Steward hospitals, including St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center and Carney Hospital in Boston.

The union is urging Tufts to follow Steward’s example and come to a similar agreement. Tufts, so far, has not. The hospital “has a long history of working with both non-union and union employees,” Tufts vice president Brooke Hynes said in a statement.

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Hynes said the hospital would include workers in shaping the new health system, should the merger go through.

Tufts’ workforce includes 1,056 union nurses who belong to the Massachusetts Nurses Association. The nurses union also represents 461 nurses at Boston Medical Center. SEIU has about 2,500 members at Boston Medical Center, including nurses.

“We have a positive, collaborative relationship with the unions who represent our workers, including SEIU, and a history of open dialogue that we expect to continue,” Jennifer Watson, chief of staff at BMC, said in a statement.

Boston and Tufts have discussed a potential merger for months, but have not signed an agreement. Leaders of the hospitals, which both serve large populations of low-income patients, say they could offer an attractive alternative to higher-cost competitors in Boston.

They have not detailed how a merger would affect their operations or workforces. Together, the hospitals employ 11,500 people.

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“Like every health care organization in the current environment we would be focused on operating as efficiently as possible,” Watson said. She added that a merger would also lead to “significant growth opportunities.”

Union officials predict a merger will result in layoffs, and they are asking hospital leaders to ensure that affected workers get help for training and job searches. But neither the SEIU nor the Massachusetts Nurses Association are opposing a potential BMC-Tufts merger.

“We support the merger so long as it ensures full access to all needed services by the communities these two facilities currently serve,” said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the nurses union.

As merger talks continue, SEIU is also asking Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh to support workers’ rights.

“Creating quality jobs with good wages is a priority for the city, and therefore a top priority of any possible merger talks,” Walsh said in a statement. “A fair unionization process is central to achieving the goal of good jobs.”

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.