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Longtime leader of R.I. health care workers union stepping aside

“This is the kind of job that you have to be able to do fully, every single day. And the last couple of years have felt like 10 years,” SEIU 1199′s Patrick Quinn told the Globe.

Patrick J. Quinn, the longtime executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199 New England.HANDOUT

PROVIDENCE — Patrick J. Quinn, the longtime executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199 New England, told the Globe Wednesday that he is taking a step back from the union he’s been advocating for over the last 36 years.

A carefully spoken collective-bargaining expert who has led one of the state’s most vocal unions for 12 years, Quinn is a powerful figure who has been influential in hospital board rooms, earned the respect of lawmakers, and has been tactical against those managers and corporate owners who aren’t initially willing to negotiate.

Quinn, 63, said he made the decision in January to step away in the middle of his term — which does not end until May 2023 — after having a conversation with his wife of 35 years.

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“This is the kind of job that you have to be able to do fully, every single day. And the last couple of years have felt like 10 years,” said Quinn during a phone interview, explaining he has worked nearly seven days a week since the pandemic began.

Patrick J. Quinn, the longtime executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199 New England, with members, pre-pandemic, outside Women & Infants Hospital in Providence.HANDOUT

Jesse Martin, who previously led Connecticut’s SEIU branch, will serve out the rest of Quinn’s term. Quinn said Martin may also run for re-election next spring.

“I’ve known Jesse for the last decade. He was effective in Connecticut... That’s transferrable here,” said Quinn, who is still working one day each week for SEIU through August to help with the transition, while also teaching a graduate course on collective bargaining at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

At picket lines, Quinn shies away from the limelight — sporting a baseball cap and a button with the union’s logo pinned to his breast pocket — until the bullhorn is placed in his hand. He marches in line along with nurses, technicians, and other frontline workers, occasionally wearing a sign around his neck that could read “Patient care is our bottom line,” or “Be fair to those who care.”

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Prior to becoming executive vice president, Quinn worked as the state council director from 2005 to 2010, and since, has witnessed changes in the state’s health care and political systems. He’s led countless contract campaigns and strikes, looked to expand collective bargaining rights to non-traditional settings like home child-care and home care, established joint labor management training and education funds to cover more than half of the union’s 4,000 members in Rhode Island, and worked alongside the Raise the Bar on Resident Care coalition to help pass a bill in 2021 that set minimum staffing levels in facilities.

He’s rallied at the Rhode Island State House, outlining to lawmakers the painstaking toll the pandemic has exacted on the lowest paid workers.

Patrick J. Quinn speaks to the press at the Rhode Island State House.HANDOUT

But even with all that he counts as accomplishments, Quinn is looking at the industry’s future: A growing workforce crisis that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Low reimbursement rates from Medicare, a completely unaffordable education system, stagnant wages, and — in some cases — poor working conditions have only fueled the crisis that Quinn has looked to combat his entire career.

The ongoing workforce crisis “requires a reckoning we cannot ignore,” he said. “Maybe we shouldn’t be so RN-centric. But we’ve undervalued the workforce pipeline.”

After some time away from the union, Quinn said he’ll be looking for a position in workforce development where he can help build up the state’s health care labor force. He said traveling nurses are getting paid double — or more — compared to permanent staff inside Rhode Island’s hospitals and other health care facilities. “We need to build a Rhode Island-based health care system,” he said.

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A dedicated labor pipeline should include training, tuition reimbursement and advancement opportunities, he said. He has not received any job offers, he said — nor has he looked for any — since he’s still helping at SEIU.

“But after doing this for 36 years, fighting for the labor force is just in your blood,” he said.

And Quinn says it’s the right time to step aside.

Public approval of unions stands at 68 percent — the highest rate since 71 percent in 1965 — according to a recent Gallup poll. In fact, workers at corporations across the country — from Amazon and Apple to Starbucks and Verizon — are forming their own unions and demanding improvements to working conditions. According to the National Labor Relations Board, more workers are forming unions now than at almost any time since the 1930s.

Quinn isn’t surprised. To him, the pandemic was a “wakeup call” to millions of workers, especially those in the health care sector.

“Too many workers were called ‘heroes’ or ‘essential’ but were forced to expose themselves and their families to unsafe working conditions and the possibility of sickness and even death,” said Quinn. “Younger people understand the urgency for change more than my generation does.

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“Unemployment, Social Security, and collective bargaining are the cornerstones of the New Deal. The first two are not controversial. But the third has been under attack for my entire working life,” said Quinn.

“But [now] it’s like we’re living in this New Deal concept all over again…,” said Quinn, “Because of the younger generation coming up.”

“And it gives me hope.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.