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    Health center workers rally against layoffs

    Dozens of fired workers and their supporters demonstrated outside the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury Friday morning to protest what they say is retaliation for trying to organize a union.

    Twenty employees of the center were let go Thursday afternoon, some in the middle of their shifts, according to 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which is holding an election next week. Many of those fired, a group that includes nurses, doctors, and mental health workers, supported the union campaign.

    Chief executive Frederica Williams said the cuts were due to two grants being denied, accounting for a loss of $680,000 in expected funds, and were unrelated to unionization. She said she was taking a 25 percent pay cut for the remainder of the year to help reduce the budget by $1 million.

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    The center has 300 employees in all, and 1199SEIU was trying to organize a bargaining unit of around 80.

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    In a letter to the staff Thursday, Williams wrote, “As everyone is aware by now, Whittier, like other health centers, was already experiencing serious financial challenges.”

    “I have repeatedly expressed my desire to avoid layoffs,” she continued, “but this latest unexpected financial news leaves the Health Center with little choice.”

    But the workers and the union insist the move is directly related to the unionization effort. Employees have been subject to an aggressive antiunion campaign from health care center management, according to the union, and have been required to attend mandatory meetings led by outside consultants laying out a case against unionization.

    One of those consultants is Katherine Lev, who also serves on the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board, the state board that handles labor disputes involving public-sector unions. A group of local union leaders recently sent a letter to Governor Charlie Baker raising concerns that Lev’s outside consulting work could affect her rulings.

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    Last week, 1199SEIU sent a letter describing the center’s antiunion activities to members of the Boston City Council and legislators representing communities served by the health center.

    “It’s quite concerning that a health care center would be spending health care dollars to try and block a union from representing their workers,” said Tim Foley, executive vice president of 1199SEIU, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. “What is very different in this situation compared to many others is the termination of 20 workers with an election less than a week away. It’s unprecedented.”

    During a lively rally on the cracked sidewalk outside the center that was attended by several elected officials, including state Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, union members and workers chanted and waved signs saying “Frederica, shame on you” and “First, do no harm.”

    Brenna Cyr, a domestic violence coordinator at the clinic and a member of the union organizing committee, said she was let go in the middle of her shift Thursday, and three of her patients who showed up Friday had no one to talk to.

    “You know who’s really hurting right now? My clients,” she told the crowd. “People are in danger and now they have lost a support in their life.”

    Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com and on Twitter @ktkjohnston.