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This health care workers union is staying on the sidelines of the ballot question debate

The Service Employees International Union — a labor group known for activism — doesn’t usually shy away from matters of politics and health care.

But this year, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East is sitting on the sidelines for one of the state election’s most contentious issues.

The union has not taken a position on Question 1, the ballot initiative to regulate nurse staffing, even while many other labor groups have thrown their support behind it.

Another union, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, is backing the ballot measure, which would limit the number of patients assigned to hospital nurses at one time. Other unions endorsing the question include the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, and the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts.


The nurses union also has support from many Democratic elected officials and candidates, including Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who announced his endorsement of the measure this week.

Hospitals are leading a campaign to try to defeat the question.

Governor Charlie Baker opposes Question 1, while House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, talking with reporters Tuesday, said he has been focused on other issues and declined to pick a side.

1199SEIU represents nearly 60,000 health care workers in Massachusetts in service, clerical, and technical jobs. The union has been particularly vocal on the issue of hospital price variation. It proposed a ballot question in 2016 to slash payments to the state’s wealthiest hospitals while boosting payments to lower-paid community hospitals, but it ultimately withdrew the question after reaching a compromise with elected officials and hospital executives.

The nurses union and 1199SEIU typically don’t work together on political campaigns.

Tim Foley, executive vice president at 1199SEIU, said Question 1 addresses only one part of the staffing problem at Massachusetts hospitals.

“We are neutral,” Foley said in a statement. “We agree with nurses that hospital systems across Massachusetts have not done enough to address these crucial staffing issues. At the same time, we believe in comprehensive reform that focuses on the entire care team and addresses issues like mandatory overtime and worker engagement.”


The union is also staying neutral in the Massachusetts governor’s race — even though it supports single-payer health care, which is part of the platform of Democratic candidate Jay Gonzalez.

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