Following a contentious union campaign that generated staunch resistance from management at McLean Hospital, nurses and other clinicians at the world-renowned psychiatric hospital in Belmont have voted to join AFSCME Council 93.
The results of two elections, announced Friday, were close. Registered nurses, nurse practitioners, and clinical coordinators voted 113-100 in favor of the union, and mental health specialists and community residence counselors approved the union 121-91. About 60 ballots have been contested, but Council 93 expects the victories — representing more than 700 workers in all — to stand.
“We faced strong and well-documented opposition from management, but these dedicated healthcare professionals had the courage to endure the battle,” Mark Bernard, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93, said in a statement. “In doing so, they have laid a solid foundation for improving patient care, creating a safer workplace, and building a brighter economic future for themselves and their families.”
McLean Hospital, which opened in 1818 as the Asylum for the Insane in Charlestown and is part of Mass General Brigham, is the busiest psychiatric hospital in the state. If the National Labor Relations Board certifies the election after resolving the challenged ballots, hospital officials said, it will bargain in good faith with the union.
“McLean Hospital respects the decision of our staff in these elections,” Scott Rauch, president and psychiatrist in chief, said in a statement. “We remain dedicated to supporting the professional growth and success of each member of our staff and to ensuring access to high-quality mental health care in a safe environment. As we look ahead, we are eager to continue our vital work together as one team to deliver on our collective mission to improve the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness.”
Among workers’ demands are increasing staffing levels, reducing employee turnover, increasing pay, and addressing mandates forcing workers to stay late to cover understaffed shifts. Employees also want to restore five sick days and regain the ability to roll over accrued paid time off, both of which were eliminated during the pandemic.
The 700 nurses and clinicians will join about 145 research and lab assistants at the hospital who voted to join AFSCME Council 93 last summer. Across Mass General Brigham, nurses are organized at a number of hospitals, including Brigham and Women’s, but the union isn’t aware of any other unionized research employees, mental health specialists, or community residence counselors in the system.
Executives at McLean launched an aggressive campaign to dissuade employees from voting yes, according to employees and the union. They paid five “union-busting” firms $350-$425 an hour, plus meals, mileage, and other expenses to hold more than 100 “captive audience” meetings to dissuade employees from supporting the effort. One consultant, Michael Penn, was paid $37,384 between September and December, according to a report filed with the US Department of Labor.
Management also sent out a steady stream of messages about how the union could restrict pay raises and flexibility. And they raised questions about the fate of the hospital’s newly organized research and lab assistants, noting that the clinicians should wait to see what happens in those contract negotiations “before signing a union card and exposing yourself to the risks of collective bargaining.” The union has filed charges with the NLRB regarding two organizing committee members who were fired for what it believes was protected union activity.
“Instead of them engaging in dialogue with us and allowing their employees to make up their own mind, they spent a lot a lot of money, tens of thousands, if not more, creating a culture of fear and misinformation,” said Eddie Nastari, director of field services and organizing for the union.
The hospital’s actions had a “chilling effect,” driving some workers to stop publicly supporting the union, added John Killoy, assistant director of legislation, communications, and political action.
McLean previously told the Globe that it was the hospital’s responsibility to give employees all the facts about belonging to a union and that patients benefit when caregivers work directly with managers rather than through a third party.
The opposition continued until the end, said nurse Devin Fratus Anti-union leaflets and fliers covering break room walls detailed “scare tactics” such as the possibility of a strike and AFSCME’s lack of experience representing health care workers. The hospital also sent out emails warning employees that the union could infringe on workplace culture and cause rifts between clinicians and managers, Fratus said; one contained a video of unit managers talking about bad experiences they’d had with unions in the past.
Fratus, a member of the nurses’ organizing committee, said workers’ reaction to the vote has ranged from “over the moon” to pessimistic that anything will actually change. But most of the people he talked to over the weekend agreed that having a voice was a step in the right direction.
“The common sentiment from pretty much everyone was, regardless of how much or how little changes,” he said, “it’s good to have a seat at the table and for the hospital to have accountability now.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.