Medical residents and fellows at the state’s largest health system have voted to unionize, creating one of the largest unions of its kind in the country.
In a vote of 1,215 to 412, residents and fellows at multiple Mass General Brigham hospitals voted to join the Committee of Interns and Residents, or CIR, at the Service Employees International Union.
“It sends a pretty resounding message,” said Dr. Kayty Himmelstein, a member of the organizing committee for the union who said she cried tears of joy when she heard the news. “[I’m] excited to celebrate and to get to work negotiating our new contract.”
Approximately 75 percent of the more than 2,300 eligible members participated in the vote, including residents and fellows at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s, Mass Eye and Ear, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. The results must be certified by the National Labor Relations Board to be final, a process expected to take place within the next week.
In a statement, Dr. Paul Anderson, interim chief academic officer at Mass General Brigham, said the mission of the organization remained unchanged, and the health system would work within the parameters that would be established by the union’s collective bargaining process.
“As an organization dedicated to training the next great generation of caregivers, we are proud of the education that we provide to our residents and fellows, and we recognize the vital importance of the unique partnership between faculty and trainees in our institutions,” he said. “While we are disappointed with the outcome, this election is part of a continuing national trend among medical trainees seeking collective bargaining through union representation.”
The work of residents and fellows has always been demanding, often including 80-hour work weeks. But some say the pressures have escalated in recent years, with training for some doctors becoming longer, as more choose to sub-specialize in certain fields, including within surgery. Organizers hope to achieve better pay to accommodate the region’s high cost of living and financial support for child care. Other priorities include lower health insurance costs, compensation for supplies physicians use for work, and financial support for patients.
Residents and fellows have already begun to see changes, with the health system recently announcing it would provide 10 percent raises and $10,000 stipends to residents and fellows to accommodate the rising cost of living. The system said the increase was part of larger salary adjustments it began last year, but organizers credited the unionization effort.
The MGB move is only the latest nationwide. Since early 2021, CIR-SEIU membership has almost doubled from 17,000 to 30,000 today, as the pandemic put unprecedented strain on hospital staff. The union currently includes residents at Stanford Health Care, the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, Montefiore Medical Center in New York, and Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
In Massachusetts, Boston Medical Center and Cambridge Health Alliance have been unionized for several years. Residents and fellows at UMass Medical School unionized in 2021, winning their first contract last summer.
The unionization includes doctors in the post-medical school training period, which includes an initial residency that lasts between three and seven years, depending on specialty. A fellowship follows residency for some doctors and lasts from one to about three years.
The move to unionize began more than two years ago and has faced intense pushback from hospital leaders. Union organizers said hospital leadership adorned hospital walls with posters enumerating the reasons to vote no and circulated videos with similar messages. The health system additionally sent texts to employees’ cell phones and mailers to their homes.
Yet union organizers persisted, undertaking a grassroots effort to get out the vote largely through word of mouth. Groups coordinated coverage for colleagues as they took time out from their shifts to vote over the last week, and staff showed up to the polls despite the demands of the job. Some came in from parental leave; others showed up at 5:30 a.m. before operating room cases began.
“It’s an effort that reflects how much we care about this and how essential it is for our own wellbeing and patients,” Himmelstein said.
Participants said there was an “electric” atmosphere in the halls of Mass General on Thursday as the vote got underway. Dr. Sascha Murillo was walking in the hospital when she looked at her phone and saw dozens of messages from supporters about the win.
“I almost screamed in the hallway,” she said.
One hour after the vote was tallied, residents wearing union pins and wielding posters gathered in the CIR offices on Tremont Street to celebrate. Purple-painted walls matched “union strong” signs pinned up around the room.
For many, the unionization work was personal. Himmelstein, who has one more year in her fellowship, is nine months pregnant and has seen firsthand the challenge of juggling doctors’ appointments and managing the cost of future childcare.
“That added urgency for me, personally, to say, ‘We need a mechanism to advocate for ourselves to take care of ourselves and our families [so we can] focus on our patients while we’re at work,” she said.
Globe Correspondent Sonel Cutler contributed reporting.